Driving is a rite of passage for many of us. The ability to go wherever you want whenever you have a set of keys in your hand is extremely liberating. Driving can also be a symbol of adulthood. It means you’re responsible and autonomous enough now to be trusted with the control of a vehicle that impacts the lives of those around you.
I remember the night after I got my driver’s license. I thought, “I’m going to use my symbol of freedom and autonomy to go buy some cookie dough ice cream! At three in the morning! Because I’m responsible now!”
But in Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive to get ice cream, let alone their own workplace. The government doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to women, but the law requires drivers to have locally issued licenses. It’s a little legal dance that prevents women from getting behind the wheel unless they are fortunate enough to get an international drivers license, or to live in a company compound where women have permission to drive.
Complicating things even more, many religious authorities in Saudi Arabia claim that women drivers are “haram,”or forbidden. Outraged clerics have said that if women start driving, drug usage and prostitution will start skyrocketing — because, you know, a woman’s first thought after getting behind the wheel is, “gosh, I should really start up a brothel.”
The “Women2Drive” movement continues to take aim at these sexist ideas, as it celebrates its 1st anniversary. The protest was formed by Manal al-Sharif a year ago. It calls on Saudi Arabia’s King to give women the right to drive without fear of flogging, imprisonment or unemployment.
Manal is no stranger to these threats. In 2011, after uploading a video of herself driving down Khobar streets she was faced with some vicious backlash: Arrested, jailed and fired from her job at Aramco, Manal and her family are still flooded with death-threats on a daily basis. Saudi cleric, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Tarifi issued a fatwa against Manal in June, accusing her of being a “hypocrite,” which places her life in even more danger. In an interview with Newswire, Manal said that she has considered, “Leaving the country” in order to find employment.
Within the country, Saudi women who have no spouse or guardian to drive them to work face an obstacle course of challenges. Saudi Arabia has little to no public transit, and street harassment is common for women walking alone. Hiring a private driver is often the best option, but it will bleed a bank account dry. Many drivers charge 30-50 Saudi Riyals per hour, or per drop off. Some financially savvy drivers have upped their rates even more, as their services are so high in demand.
It’s these financial and personal sufferings that have driven Manal and the other protestors of “Women2Drive” to continue their fight for women’s equality. Another petition was recently given to King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, with more than 750 signatures in support of giving women the right to drive.
Change is coming to women in Saudi Arabia. The country is sending their first female athletes to the Olympics this year. Women will have the right to vote and be allowed to hold office by 2015.
It was because the international community’s bloodshot eye was glaring at Saudi Arabia that we will see some female competitors in London. It was political will inside the country that brought about the promise of a vote for 50% of the population. Maybe the same pressure from outside and political will from inside Saudi Arabia will push the Women2Drive movement back into the spotlight.
Manal’s words at the Otto Freedom Forum in May seem to foreshadow the change to come: “The rain,” she said, “starts with a single drop.”