Once Shunned as ‘Drivers,’ Saudi Women Who Fought Ban Now Celebrate

Controlling Women

At the time of the protest, Ms. Alghanem was 34, with a high school degree, a husband, four children and a job at an elementary school.

“I didn’t have anything interesting in my life,” she recalled.

At the time, Saudi women were severely restricted. The culture was highly patriarchal, and clerics, thanks to their alliance with the royal family, had tremendous power to defend the kingdom against what they considered to be corrupting influences.

Much of that meant controlling women, and they saw the driving ban as necessary to prevent adultery and other social ills.

“Allowing women to drive contributes to the downfall of the society,” the kingdom’s top cleric at the time wrote in a fatwa that was removed recently from a government website. “This is well known.”

Women who chafed under the ban saw an opportunity when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman, invaded Kuwait in 1990. American forces flooded the kingdom, including American servicewomen who drove military vehicles. Kuwaiti women who had fled the invasion also drove.

Ms. Alghanem took note.

“I saw that we as Saudi women were powerless,” she said.

She invited other women to her home to discuss the issue, and they later decided to take action. They sent a letter to Salman — at the time the governor of Riyadh Province — telling him that they planned to drive.

They never heard back, they said, so on Nov. 6, 1990, they met near a supermarket in Riyadh, piled into 14 cars piloted by women with valid foreign licenses and drove around town.

They were social outliers, backed by no political party, and other Saudi women did not rush to join them. Many came from affluent families and had studied abroad. They included teachers, professors, a social worker, a photographer and a dentist.

Most were married with children; at least two were pregnant. One woman joined late, with her two daughters, one of whom was breast-feeding. Some had defied their male relatives to show up. Supportive husbands and brothers dropped off others at the meeting place.

Word spread, and the women were stopped by both the traffic police and the religious police, some of whom furiously banged on the cars.

“‘I want to dig a hole to bury you all!’” Fawziah al-Bakr, an education professor, recalled one man shouting at her. “They were thinking that we were going to destroy this country.”

They were taken to the police station and released around dawn, after they and their male relatives signed pledges that the women would not drive again.

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