Aziza al-Yousef said she took a 15-minute drive in the Saudi capital today to mark the first anniversary of a campaign to end the ban on women drivers in the kingdom.
Al-Yousef, a 52-year-old computer science university lecturer, said she encountered no problems driving in support of a call by the My Right to Dignity campaign. Saudi Arabia follows the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, and religious police formally known as the General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ensure strict gender segregation at public places such as restaurants and schools.
“What’s happening today is not a protest,” she said by phone from Riyadh. “We want to remember the day and the issue.”
The driving ban highlights the disparity between the rights of men and women in ultra-conservative kingdom, holder of the world’s second-largest oil reserves. Women have been granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, yet they were excluded from last year’s ballot and can’t travel or get an education or job without male approval.
“Society will get used to seeing women behind the wheel,” the My Right to Dignity campaign said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “We demand the protection of women drivers from any legal sanctions, and we demand that authorities protect women drivers in the street from any harassments they could face.”
Al-Yousef and about 100 other women across the kingdom haven’t stopped driving since the campaign was started, she said. On most occasions, it was out of necessity, she said, citing examples such as a woman who took her son who was suffering from an asthma attack to a hospital in the middle of the night.
“We didn’t drive to the mall or a party; we drove when there was a need and we couldn’t find a driver,” said al-Yousef, a member of My Right to Dignity campaign who said she drove about 30-40 times last year.
Women activists started several campaigns for broader rights last year, including the driving initiative. They were inspired by the Arab revolts that led to the fall of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. One of their efforts, a campaign called Baladi, partially succeeded with King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to participate in the next elections.
More than 50 women responded to the call to get behind the wheel in June 2011, taking spins in their cars as authorities largely turned a blind eye. Some continued to drive after the one-day initiative, and a couple were briefly detained. One woman was sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah, a decision that was later rescinded.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, who sat in the passenger seat last year as his wife drove, said the couple won’t repeat the experience because they were pulled over by a police car and he was forced to sign a pledge saying he won’t let his wife drive again.
“But I told my wife she should encourage her friends to do so,” said al-Qahtani, a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.
The My Right to Dignity campaign called on women with international driving licenses to repeat the turnout today, and to record their trips as evidence. Those who don’t know how to drive were urged to send a picture of themselves behind the wheel of a car to the campaigners.
The group also called on male supporters to take their female relatives on car journeys, sending a video clip or a picture of the event, and to teach them how to drive, “even your mother.”
“Marking the anniversary is going to be symbolic but the symbolism is important because it will be a reminder of the urgent matters that need attention, and a sign of continuity,” Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian, said in a phone interview on June 27.
Before last year’s initiative, the previous public defiance of the ban by a group of women was in November 1990, when U.S. troops were massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for the war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.