Photographer: Hasan Jamali/AP Photos

Saudi Women Drivers Had a Long and Painful Journey

This timeline shows how it's taken almost three decades of campaigning and risks to get behind a wheel.

King Salman’s decision to allow women to drive marks the end of a long and arduous journey for scores of Saudi female drivers who faced arrest, harassment, slander and loss of jobs to get behind the wheel. 

The first major campaign by Saudi women to drive took place almost 27 years ago, as U.S. troops were massing in the kingdom in preparation for expelling Iraqi soldiers that had invaded Kuwait. The women believed the presence of major international news outlets would guarantee their message would get out and the Saudi government would be reticent to crack down on them with the world watching. They were mistaken.

“A lot of sacrifices have been made not just by the women who drove but also by the people who supported them -- families, male relatives, activists and writers,” Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian who has closely followed the issue, said on Tuesday as the official state news agency reported the ban would be lifted from June next year. 

How It Unfolded

Here’s a timeline based on al-Fassi's experiences and reporting from Saudi Arabia over the years.

  • Nov. 6: 1990: Forty seven women met that sunny afternoon at a mall parking lot in Riyadh. The 15 women who had international driving licenses dismissed their drivers and got behind the wheel as the rest joined them in the cars. They cruised around Riyadh for more than an hour before they were stopped by the religious police, who enforce Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. The women were jailed, though most were released a few hours later to their male guardians and the rest were freed the next day.
  • Nov. 9, 1990: On the following Friday, clerics denounced the drivers in their sermons as criminals and harlots. Names had leaked out by then and leaflets trashed them as “fallen women” and anonymous callers made death threats. The women lost their jobs for more than two years and they were banned from travel for a year. The women have quietly marked the anniversary each year, once even ordering a cake shaped like a Volkswagen beetle with women piled inside it.
  • May 2005: Mohammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Consultative Council at the time, suggested that his fellow legislators think about studying the possibility of allowing women over 35 or 40 to drive. He touched off a controversy in which he was demonized, accused of encouraging women to mix with men and being driven by carnal instincts.
Employees look at a car at a showroom where women sell cars to female buyers, in Riyadh, Nov. 29, 2006. 
Photographer: Donna Abu-Nasr/AP Photos
  • Mid 2006: Car showrooms staffed by women for female buyers popped up in Saudi Arabia. Saleswomen would discuss automotive features, but were not allowed to promote driving or take a test drive with a potential buyer.
  • September 2007: A group of women formed the Committee of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars to lobby for the right to get behind the wheel. They collected more than 3,000 signatures and sent two petitions to then King Abdullah.
  • March 8, 2008: On International Women’s Day, committee member Wajeeha al-Howaider posted a video of herself on YouTube driving in the Eastern Province, the first of its kind. The government didn’t punish her.
  • June 17, 2011: At the height of the Arab Spring, a group of women led by Manal al-Sharif, who was 32 years old at the time, got behind the wheels of their cars. Al-Sharif was detained for nine days.
  • Oct. 26, 2013: More than 60 Saudi women, responding to a call by a movement called the Oct. 26 campaign, got into their cars to protest the ban on women driving despite warnings by police and ultraconservatives. Several uploaded videos on social media. Some were detained. They had to sign a pledge not to drive again and were only released to a male guardian.
  • December 2014: Activist Loujain Alhathloul was arrested and detained for more than two months after she attempted to drive across the border from Saudi Arabia to the U.A.E.
  • April 2016: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now crown prince and heir to the throne, rolled out an ambitious program called Vision 2030 to modernize the economy, open up the country and increase women’s participation in the workforce. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier, he said that “we believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain.” A few days later he told reporters Saudi Arabia wasn’t ready to end the ban.
  • Sept. 26, 2017: The official Saudi Press Agency said the ban will end and committees from various ministries have been set up to examine implementation.
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