Sunday, June 24, 2018, was a historic moment in Saudi Arabia, as women drove their cars for the first time following the end of the driving ban. However, for some of them, the decision to lift the ban in the kingdom was less relevant, not because they are ultraconservatives or anti–women driving activists but because they have been driving for years in Saudi villages, remote areas, and across agricultural cities without facing major reprisals.
There have never been actual provisions in the Saudi traffic rules that explicitly prevent women from driving. Instead, the ban on women driving was culturally and socially constructed, enforced by the traffic police and the Ministry of Interior and morally supported by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Pre- vention of Vice (commonly referred to as the “religious police”).
Women’s-rights activists used Article (32) of the Traffic Law, which stipulates that “no person shall be permitted to drive any vehicle before obtaining the neces- sary driving license,” to defend their right to sit behind the wheel and to prove that they are not lawbreakers but law adherents. Activists argued that, by means of the use of the gender-neutral term person, this provision is not limited to men. Failing to issue driver’s licenses to women thus lacks a legal base. This reading of the law encouraged Saudi women to defy the ban for decades, from the November 6, 1990, car demonstration in the city of Riyadh to the 2009 petition and later the well-known 2011 Women2Drive campaign and the October 26 call in 2013. Alongside these actions, intellectuals submitted various motions and letters to the ruling royal fam- ily to demand an overturn of the infamous ban.
People in central cities in Saudi Arabia, such as Riyadh and Jeddah, have heard the stories of women villagers and Bedouins carrying handguns for protection and driving pickup vehicles over hundreds of miles through a harsh environment to work on their families’ farmland, bring their kids to school, go to grocery stores, harvest crops, and transport livestock to the market. The complex natural terrain in these villages, which often lack good infrastructure, renders driving an important issue for all family members, as it is the only means of mobility through mountains and desert plains. The stories of these women have been rarely covered by local press. One exceptional report was published in 2010 in the Saudi Al Riyadh Newspaper, where they wrote about Norah Hamdan, a fifty-five-year-old woman who told the newspaper that she had been driving big tankers to bring clean drinking water to her village and to other villages for years and that she had never experienced disrespect or harassment (www.alriyadh.com/541008). The report on Hamdan was presented in cautious language, mentioning the stories of women driving outside urban areas yet emphasizing that women in cities would be permitted to drive only when society was ready. Given Hamdan’s story, it was initially difficult to fathom how women in Saudi Arabia’s most conservative communities were driving their vehicles without back- lash, unrest, or defamation campaigns, while women’s-rights activists protesting the ban had their passports confiscated or were imprisoned or forced into exile.
Gradually, I realized that women driving in their villages and in small provinces was normal because their family survival depended on the motor vehicle, given the lack of public transportation. Male household members leave home from dawn until dusk to work in nearby cities, leaving Bedouin women responsible for tak- ing care of their families’ daily needs. The limited financial incomes of the families prevent them from hiring private drivers to carry the work on their behalf. More- over, hardworking mothers and their daughters in villages cannot hire drivers, as this puts them in a state of khalwa, or “seclusion” in an enclosed area with a man who is not a relative, which is forbidden according to the Saudi interpretation of Sunni Islam. This leaves women in the hinterlands with no alternative to sitting behind the wheel in order to manage family affairs.
For these reasons the police have traditionally turned a blind eye to such situations, as families’ livelihoods depend on the ability of women to drive in these areas. As a result, police officers do not target female villagers despite the illegality of their defying the ban. Moreover, police authorities do not have the capacity or the resources to effectively patrol remote areas, resulting in their acceptance of this sit- uation. This also demonstrates the pragmatic nature of the Saudi regime. Knowing that preventing female villagers from driving may cause tension and jeopardize the villagers’ livelihoods, thus potentially leading to popular uprisings, the authorities have opted for following an unwritten policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
While women in urban areas were banned from driving, women in villages would express their surprise at the punitive measures taken against women caught sitting behind the wheel in big cities. Women in rural areas often recall that their female ancestors rode horses and camels and argue, therefore, that there is no reason for them not to drive cars as a form of modern transportation. Aware of the enforcement of the ban in urban areas, however, female villagers driving their cars close to the borders of large cities would switch their seats with their teenage sons or male relatives to avoid problems.
Saudi women in the periphery faced trouble with the authorities for the first time coinciding with the Women2Drive campaign. The Saudi police’s severe mea- sures and crackdown on women campaigning to drive cars in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, was extended to villages even though women there had not demanded an end to the ban. This was the case of a Saudi woman in a small village in Al-Qassim region, who was arrested with her mother and sister as she drove a Datsun pickup truck. The leaders of the village defended the woman driver, arguing that she was not defying the rules but had always driven because of family need. As the ban was socially constructed and legally supported, the tolerance toward women driving vehicles in some of the most conservative villages in the kingdom is also socially constructed and motivated by the local need for it.
The question is, If women were allowed to drive outside central cities, why did the regime arrest the 1990 car demonstrators and the Women2Drive campaigners? Why, at the time of this writing, in October 2018, do prominent women’s-rights activists who fought for the right to drive remain behind bars after the lifting of the ban?
People in Saudi Arabia live under an order that regulates and controls every aspect of their public and private lives through a system of rewards for those who show loyalty to the regime and its ideology, as well as a system of harsh punishments for those who dare to defy political and social norms. By means of this dual system the regime ensures full control of society. The royal family strives to keep issues related to women’s rights under the control of the patriarchal political system, as the regime fears a bottom-up approach to change that might spark the popular imag- ination and lead to further demands for sustainable reforms. Thus rights are granted by the king only when he so wishes, not in response to people’s demands. It is within this context that the authorities’ tolerance toward women driving in villages needs to be understood, as this allows the regime to avoid popular discontent or a “revo- lution of the hungry” in the hinterlands. At the same time, women’s-rights activists challenging the regime narrative in big cities has always led to crackdowns, because the regime fears that this will lead to demands for greater democratic change by its people.
The different treatment of women driving in villages and cities shows that the Saudi regime continues to reserve for itself the absolute right to interpret women’s needs and priorities. It also demonstrates the totalitarian nature of the system, where individual narratives and demands outside the state’s interests and agenda are not tolerated. Now the major challenge for Saudi women is to safeguard these limited positive steps, such as the right to drive; work to challenge patriarchal norms; and push forward for further holistic and sustainable gender reforms. Women in central cities as well as in the peripheries continue to suffer and fight in one way or another against both a political system that regulates and controls every aspect of public and private life and an entrenched patriarchal social structure that keeps them in political, social, and legal shackles.
HANA AL-KHAMRI is a writer and analyst who has worked for a local Saudi Arabian newspaper. Currently based in Sweden, she writes for the Washington Post and Al Jazeera English, among other publications. She is also the national program coordinator for the organization ActionAid, working on improving girls’ and women’s rights. She is author of Women of Ink: Female Journalists in Gender-Apartheid Saudi Arabia (forthcoming). Contact: email@example.com. Twitter: @hanaalkhamri.
JMEWS • Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies • 15:2 • July 2019© 2019 by the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies