Saudi Arabia: Driving her message home!

Wajeha Al Huwaider protesting

Not all women in Saudi Arabia agree that it’s best for women not to drive a car ever. Wajeha Al Huwaider is one of the best known advocates for Saudi women driving.
This is an interesting interview with Wajeha al Huwaider from New internationalist magazine.

She has many interesting observations about Saudi Arabia, and why things are as they are, and about her experiences in the past, when women were more free than they are now.

In response to my work fighting for women’s rights in my country, some people from outside the kingdom like to point the finger at Saudi men. But I say: when the law is bad the men are bad – you will see their dark side then. The law makes them bad – they can get away with what they want – without even feeling what they are doing to their women is wrong.

I love my country – it’s better to fight to change things from here. People talking from outside are not taken so seriously. But when they talk from inside, it has more effect on people. That’s why I don’t want to leave.

Some people here think my work is about trying to Westernize our society: I’ve been abroad, I have these strange ideas that I want to impose. But it’s not like that. It’s not about Eastern or Western – it’s about human rights. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Actually, my mother and grandmother had more rights and freedoms than we have today. They used to travel without permission. They used whatever was there to move around – camels, donkeys, horses. There weren’t religious beliefs about how to dress. Women used to work in the fields, in the markets. Now these jobs are not available for women or even allowed.

The situation changed gradually. One of the main reasons was economic. In pre-oil boom days there was more freedom for women because the culture was still nomadic. When we started to have more money, after the oil industry was established, and when the country began to urbanize, then we started to segregate. We could afford to have two schools – one for boys and one for girls; two different universities – one for men and one for women.

And of course after the Iranian Revolution there was another reason for people to become more restricted in their behaviour. Saudi Arabia is the homeland of Islam, so the onus is on us to be even more religious than the Iranians. There was also concern about the Shi’a minority here and the possibility of the Islamic Revolution being imported into the kingdom. And the birth of the jihadi movement during the Afghanistan wars gave more power to the religious groups.

We know that the Talibanis or jihadis were trained by the CIA with Saudi money, Gulf money. Jordan and Egypt also sponsored jihadis. The goal was to destroy communism. But the price is very high – for the West and for us here. These guys came back to Saudi Arabia. We had terrorist attacks here too.

The reality now is so different from the time of my grandmother. My paternal granny – I remember her well – was married three times. Her first husband died. She divorced her second husband in the 1930s – it was much easier in those days for a woman to get a divorce. They had a fight once and he hit her and she said: ‘that’s it – I want a divorce.’ And now you see so many abused women who are still living with their husbands and who don’t leave because there’s no way out. It can take years for a woman to be granted a divorce now, even if her husband is abusing her. Society looks down on her if she leaves.

I remember, as a girl in the 1970s, travelling freely with my mother to Iraq, to Kuwait. We didn’t need a man or his permission.

So on Women’s Day in 2008, I decided to ask my sister-in-law to videotape me driving. We were going to the beach. After I posted the video on YouTube, several young women also tried to drive and one was severely injured because some men saw her and tried to drive her off the road. Two years ago, I myself was arrested for walking on the causeway carrying a sign petitioning for women’s rights in the kingdom. They told me I would need a male guardian to sponsor me or they would put me in jail. So my brother came to get me. Another time they confiscated my passport and I was lucky to get it back.

This is Wajeha’s video for women’s day, she is driving a car in the Saudi countryside:

The other side of the argument: A Saudi cleric explaining why women should not be allowed to drive:


20 Responses

  1. Wajeha Al Huwaider is a gutsy leading human rights activist who deserves support from all women in Saudi Arabia and around the world. The reason Saudi women don’t support her is because she is from the Shiite religious minority mostly in Eastern the Al-Saud Kingdom. She is putting her life on the line for all Saudi women not for herself.

    It’s not accidental that the only people in the land of Al-Saud who have total permission to express their views on any issue they desire are the extremist clerics like Al-Fawzan, video, and the rest of the anti basic decency clerics because they are the sustaining power for the Saudi autocratic monarchy. go figure.

    Continuing to debate whether Saudi women are full human beings or not is indicative of the utter backwardness of Saudi Arabia under the Saudi-Wahhabi ruling elites.

  2. wonderful woman indeed

  3. It was interesting to read the history of change this woman has seen. Many laws need to be changed, but even more important is change of heart, awakening of conscience. Our Creator has never encouraged us to be religious, only good, to practice love and peacemaking, to end our seeking to dominate each other.

  4. I heard a rumor that women will be premitted to drive soon, but that was a couple of years ago.
    I do not think she is putting her life on the line as I heard from Saudi’s, women do, indeed, drive in rural areas. The other is argument is that if a women gets stopped, she cannot be touched by the muttawa ( I question that one though since I hear of women getting arrested all the time)

  5. @Jacey,
    I first heard that same rumour more than 20 years ago. And though I hope this time it’s true- given that the conservative elements here were just given a big boost- I doubt it’s imminent.

    And yes, the Muttawa do arrest women. Though a couple summers ago they were supposed to stop taking anyone into actual custody. But that was unfortunately short-lived.

  6. Who and What Is Driving Miss Wajeha Huwaider … to fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia?

    She reminds me of Rosa Parks who ignited the spark that fueled the fire for civil rights in america. Where it took something like 15 years or so for african-americans to achieve their “freedom” after Miss Parks ignited the fire, it will take much much longer for women to achieve their civil rights and freedoms in saudi arabia.

    The reason for that is simple: For all its short- comings, US has a working democracy with a full bill of rights, courts which fully protect these rights, freedom of speech and a constitution which enshrines separation of church and state. Miss Parks and Martin Luther King were beneficiaries of this democratic system to achieve their noble goals.

    Saudi Arabia has none of these and is ruled by royal fiats/decrees and diktats, with religious clerics in the forefront of influencing everything that goes on in saudi arabia; most especially the “laws” governing everyday saudi life. That’s bad. Very sad. I wish saudi clerics will start interpreting koran, hadees and sunnah in light of the 21st century.

    It will be many many years (or centuries?), if that, before saudis in general and saudi women in particular gain their Allah-given rights to free speech, driving, gettings rid of the dreaded mahrem system, right to marry whom they choose etc etc etc. From what I have heard and read, things don’t look too promising presently. As Miss Huwaider said in the article, things are actually going backwards.

    Good luck, Miss Wajeha Huwaider ….

  7. I really like this article: . While I absolutely agree that women should be able to drive, I think there are so many obstacles in their way to function that maybe there are other issues worthy of fighting first? Just a thought.

  8. There is no reason what so ever that the others have to happen ‘first’. Why can’t it all happen immediately? Isn’t that the beauty of a Kingdom? The king can just declare it so and it is! right? There ya go, the king is the one that wants to keep women down.

  9. I’ve been hearing about what needs to come “first” for more than 20 years. They don’t want driving because it will be a major chip in their control over women-not because of safety- which they could have taken care of long ago if they’d wanted to. Besides it is just as easy to die as a passenger as a driver.

    Anyway they don’t want anything that might threaten their precious mahrem system. There is no way to practically police who is out with their owners permission and who is not. And no way for men to practically police where their women go once they leave the house with the car. If driving changes it will be a catalyst for many other things- and they don’t want that.

  10. Well if you read the article I linked to, it puts in perspective the myriad of obstacles Saudi women face even IF they were given a driver’s license. The issue is just so much bigger than driving. That’s the sad part.

  11. I did read it- and read it when it was first published. Of course it’s bigger than just driving but clearly even the powers that be are aware it is would likely be a huge catalyst for change or they wouldn’t bother stopping it from happening. They wouldn’t be so afraid.

  12. Dania, I did read the article and I did NOT see a ‘myriad of obstacles’ but rather ONE. That women are not treated as fully self functioning human beings. Who has the power to stop King Abdullah from declaring tomorrow that ‘from this day on women will be treated as full human beings equal under the law and capable of managing their own affairs if they so choose’? If that would be declared would your myriad of obstacles still exist?

  13. As Lynn said, there is only one obstacle preventing Saudi women from leading a self determined life…and that is the Saudi male ego. Period.

  14. LYNN: “Who has the power to stop King Abdullah from declaring tomorrow that ‘from this day on women will be treated as full human beings equal under the law and capable of managing their own affairs if they so choose’?”


    King Abdullah did exactly that about three years ago i.e. issued a royal decree allowing women to drive. That royal decree was never implemented or carried out because of stiff opposition/resistance by the religious shoora council.

    So the saudi king is not as powerful as we might think. He is held hostage by the saudi religious sheiks and ulema. He has to constantly watch his back …. a saudi version of checks and balances.

  15. checks and balances are a good thing.. just inthis case the guys doing the checking are not necessarily the right group.
    you don’t want religious shieks in power but neither do you want a king running loose drunk on power…

    Isn’t there some normal group who believes in equality there at all!!!

  16. It is also interesting to hear time and time again that life used to be very diffeerent in Saudi only a few decades ago. More freedom for women, more jobs, transport, and less segregation.
    This proves two facts:
    1 Things are not getting better for women in the kingdom, over the last 50 years they have become a lot worse
    2- the situation today is not Saudi Arabia’s natural culture but an enforced experiment ion social engineering.

  17. “women will be treated as full human beings equal under the law and capable of managing their own affairs if they so choose”

    The above will not apply to any nation which follows Shariah law.

  18. EXactly!! So can you blame us if we do not ‘respect’ Sharia Law or the religion that spawned it?

  19. Shariah law does not prevent women from managing their own affairs, nor does it view them as unequal to men. In the twisted Saudi Wahabi ideology, perhaps, but let’s not forget that that is not Islam, not by a long shot.

  20. Zoe, if a country was following Sharia Law properly would a woman’s testimony be equal to the testimony of a man’s?

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