Saudi Arabia: A New Day of Reckoning

I believe that many Saudi women want changes to the existing mahrem system which requires every female in the Kingdom to have a male guardian.  Towards challenging this system and emphasizing the desire of independence, Friday the 15th of Rajab, 1432, which correlates to 17 June 2011, Saudi women are pledging they will take to the streets behind the wheel of the car.

Ironically in earlier years which were not really that far gone (1960’s/1970’s) no one blinked an eye at the Beudion woman behind the wheel of a vehicle driving in the rural and desert areas.  She was expected to be self-sufficient.  Yet the last time women took to the streets of Riyadh back in 1991 many might have thought aliens had arrived by the reactions of men seeing Saudi women behind the wheel!

For those who may not be familiar with Saudi law, the law in the Kingdom prohibits women from driving, deeming it illegal, regardless of her nationality.  This lack of independence has resulted in its own subculture.  The peak hours during which shops and businesses remain open are in the evenings when more men are available to provide necessary transport to a woman.  Many Saudi families find themselves using the evening hours to run routine errands at supermarkets, laundries, shopping at the mall or even for medical appointments.  The Saudi man who cannot afford or does not believe in either engaging or “allowing” the women in his family to use a driver has to perform double-duty maintaining one position to support his family and another in getting the women where they need to go. Thousands of expatriate men are employed in the Kingdom as private drivers or taxi drivers.

The Saudi women who plan to publicly take to the streets in a few weeks are fully aware there are high risks associated with their actions.  Back in 1991 the Saudi female drivers were apprehended and taken to jail.  Fathers and husbands were apprehended too and faced consequences for “not being able to manage their women.” The women who worked or were students lost their positions and status.  The women and male mahrem of the family had their passports revoked.

So how can the women “stack the deck” to be in their favor on 15 Rajab 1432/17 June 2011?  What if male mahrems and men who are in favor of Saudi women driving purposely allow themselves to be driven by an expatriate (yeah…male…) driver the week prior?  My (late) Saudi husband and I had a role reversal when he was receiving his medical treatment in Houston, Texas.  Due to his condition he was unable to drive and because he had a medical port implanted in his chest he could not even ride in the front seat as a passenger.  A fastened seat belt would anchor itself right at the same level and against his port causing discomfort.  Having no choice but to ride in the backseat my own husband quickly learned what it felt like to be chauffeured and rely on the driver (ummm, me) to get him to our specified destination on time.  He further discovered how always riding in the back of a car with tinted windows impaired his ability to learn his own way around.  I’ll never forget his own admission of frustration and then his own realization of what it must feel like day after day for the Saudi women resigned to the back seat.

What might the consequences be for the women who dare to drive in the next few weeks?  Or perhaps the question should be what will be the consequences to the Kingdom?  The “drive to drive” is gaining momentum and international media exposure.  International human rights organizations are watching and waiting. The Saudi government is in an international hot seat for sure.  If the women are stopped from driving and there are repercussions to them and their families it is going to be a media frenzy with international journalists and human rights organizations ripping apart the Saudi government like feral cats at a feeding frenzy. But if the Saudi women are given unblocked access to “drive their point home” would that encourage other demonstrations or uprising in the Kingdom?

Right now, Saudi Arabia is like the kettle of soup which can’t decide whether to remain at a simmer or erupt to a full boil.  It is a time of pivotal change for the Kingdom of which some changes are by choice and design of the Government and others are not.  One thing is for certain, the Saudi women who are taking to the street are strategic risk takers who are committed to their plan.  They have pledged to be respectful and will stop if asked.  They will all dress in accordance to Saudi customs.  They all have international drivers licenses and are not strangers to being behind the wheel (outside of the Kingdom). They seek global support. The organizer may be contacted at


13 Responses

  1. I thought I had just read that there really isn’t a LAW against women driving. If there was a law wouldn’t they prosecute and jail them rather than just turn them over to their scolded owners?

    I had just been reading about a woman who did drive, like 4 days in a row, I believe it was. Her driver had quit abruptly and she said she had no other way to get her son to school so she just took him and then she decided to go grocery shopping and other errands. She said that people saw her and gave her looks but no one did anything about it.

    I think that is what every woman who wants, and knows how to drive, should do. They can’t keep arresting everyone so I’m sure they’d eventually get over it. Then, you never know, perhaps one day when a woman drives up to the polling station they will let her vote because she has proven that she has an opinion and she isn’t afraid to voice it.

  2. Women are prohibited by law to obtain a drivers license in Saudi Arabia. There are those who say driving is against the law and others who will say it is a grey area. It is an issue of culture for sure.

    I think more women will likely start to drive spontaneously such as the recent article of the woman whose driver quit and her children needed transport to school.

    However it may be the women who choose to drive spontaneously who may be more susceptible to getting arrested and taken to jail by police or religious police. With a group of women drivers it is more humiliating to have the mahrem’s come and collect their “unruly female” and then the mahrem face repercussions which affect his business, livelihood, family, family name given the patriarchal society of Saudi Arabia.

  3. Saudi Women: Silent No More

    CDHR Commentary: After decades (centuries) of forced silence, marginalization, pushover, and relegation to third class status, Saudi women are slowly but unequivocally inching toward irreversible liberation from the yoke of state-institutionalized male subjugation. The ruling Saudi theocratic and autocratic men and their personalized institutions have treated women with utter disdain since the inception of the Saudi state in 1932. Forcing women into an invisible existence (clad in black from head to toe), the chauvinistic Saudi system attributes this detestable practice to its brand of austere Islam and Saudi traditions, both of which most Saudi subjects have been conditioned into believing are superior to the rest of the world’s traditions and faiths.

    Things are changing though. As more Saudi women become educated and exposed to other peoples’ cultures, politics, and way of life (through the intense use of uncontrollable modern technologies), they begin to examine their intolerable state of affairs and compare themselves with women in their region and around the world. Many women have concluded that the state’s institutionalized, patriarchal control over every aspect of their lives, exemplified by the Apartheid-equivalent male guardian system, has to be challenged and/or removed altogether. Many occurrences of Saudi women challenging their marginalization in recent years can be cited, including the current unabashed women’s demand to participate in municipal elections scheduled to take place in September 2011.

    Under global pressure, especially from the Bush Administration, the Saudi monarchy decided to permit cosmetic national municipal elections in 2005. Women, military personnel, and all people under the age of 21 were barred from running for office or voting. Only half of the 178 municipal seats could be elected, while the king selected the other half. Women were rightfully angry even though they were told that they would be allowed to participate in the next elections, originally scheduled for 2009 but postponed by the king for two years. Now women are told they will not be allowed to participate for the same reasons given in the last elections–the government did not have time to prepare segregated voting locations. Joined by many men, women find the government’s reasoning not only unfounded but contemptuous of the people’s ability to see the system’s intent to deny women their right to equal citizenship.

    Despite the fact that women face formidable opposition from the government’s religious establishment and some traditionalists, the scale is slowly tilting in their favor. This is due to their determination to be counted and increasing support from Saudi men. In addition, a few members of the ruling family, both men and women, are vocalizing their concerns about continued policies of gender inequality.

    Finally, one has to understand that empowering Saudi women will likely undermine religious extremism in the birth place of Islam and home to its holy shrine and setting a positive example for many of the oppressed Muslim women around the world. This is in the best interest of the international community, especially given Saudi Arabia’s centrality to Islam and possession of a large repository of petroleum. Western advocates of human rights, especially women’s organizations, can highlight the importance of supporting Saudi women to obtain their rights in Saudi society.

  4. Salaams Carol: The mahram “system” is not a Saudi thing; it is from Islam. All Muslim woman have mahram. The daughter, her father. The wife, her husband. Etc. Mahram is not unique to KSA. As for prohibiting Muslim women from driving and other halal actions, this is not from Islaam. I don’t think KSA gives a fig about what the international community or HR activists think. It’s part of their arrogance, it seems.

  5. Good luck. Will be thinking of you all.

  6. The mahram system is invented by the Saudi government. In Islam a mahram is needed for the first marriage of a woman. When she re-marries she can do it on her own.
    The Mahram system in Saudi Arabia, which makes all women in effect the property of which ever man has rights over her is not described in the Quran. And from the actions of women in the hadith we know that many could and did decide their own actions. As well as drive their own means of transport, as well as leaving the house when they felt like it.

    Women in Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to drive until the men in power decide they can. And it is abundantly clear that, despite a lot of blah blah, they do not want women to drive.
    Hence women will not be ”allowed” to drive.

  7. Safiyyah: “The mahram “system” is not a Saudi thing; it is from Islam.”

    Hmmm. Could you cite specific koranic verses and specific hadith to support your assertion. Thanks.

  8. Safiyyah….the mahrem system is purely a Saudi thing and has nothing to do with Islam other than a virgin girl getting married for the first time as Aafke said.

    The Quran has an entire section that says “for the believing man and believing woman, for the praying man and the praying woman” etc etc…indicating that both are equal in Gods eyes…nothing at all about the woman being treated as a child until the day she dies.

  9. I hope lots of women do this together, not just a few . The repercussions for them and their families are indeed bad if just a handful do this, i agree that it’s a start and any protest has to sacrifice a few but i hope loads of women take to their cars, that way they can’t trouble everyone or it will be that much harder. this has to be done in the 100’s ..

    The system there can make life v v difficult for the entire family if they consider the lady of that family has crossed the bounds or broken their laws. we have to remember it’s a collective thing there, not an individual thing..

    having said that, i hope they succed, pray they succed and send positive vibes their way – hope many many 100s join your cause.

  10. @Aafke -‘Women in Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to drive until the men in power decide they can.’

    I disagree. It is the WOMEN that have the power to do it but they need to find their ‘balls’ and they need to think of more than just themselves, they need to think about their daughters and their grand daughters and all the other women in their country from now until forever. I hope they find the courage to drive and keep on driving (with an international driver’s license that is)

  11. I agree with Lynn. The men will give the women nothing. The women MUST TAKE Back their God given rights.

  12. Well said Lynn – “women need to find their balls!” – I feel that this applies to not just the matter of women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, but in a much broader contex, to women all over the world. Whether it is as extreme an issue as domestic violence, or it is merely on a psycological level, where women need men to validate their self worth by how attractive men find them. And of course everything else in between. Women need to be aware of their rights – only then will they be able to ask for them. But why even ask – just take it – it is already yours. That to me is the attitude that women need to develop. It is my humble opinion, that we need to stop asking for our rights and just start taking them for granted – asking denotes waiting for someone’s permission – we don’t need permission to start using what already belongs us!

    Being raised in a Muslim family, with five brothers, I never had to ask for my rights – it was just an accepted norm. Infact I remember my brothers complaining that I was allowed to get away with more than they ever were 🙂

  13. Very good article. The other side that many have not thought about. So many do not know of the consequences from the first time this happened. I’m sure it would deter many women from driving.
    What surprises me is that I have not seen anything from the government on this. Where is there response, you know they know about it. I’d love to hear their view of all of this.

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