Twenty-three years ago today, 47 women staged a remarkable protest against Saudi Arabia’s unwritten “law of convention” prohibiting women from driving – the only country in the world to violate this basic human right of freedom of movement. In a display of unimaginable courage and stunning defiance, these women from Riyadh’s intelligentsia took hold of the steering wheel and, accompanied by supportive husbands and brothers, drove around the country’s capital in a convoy of fourteen cars. The action had been planned carefully to “not to be too antagonistic to the culture,” according to one of ‘the drivers’ – as the 47 women came to be known. “We were mothers, well covered, nothing anti-Islam.” After thirty minutes, the convoy was brought to an abrupt halt by the mutawaeen – the special youth police force answerable only to the king, whose sole purpose is to enforce Saudi Arabia’s strict Islam. While the mutawaeen jeered and called the women “whores” and “prostitutes”, the 47 defended their action: “In time of war mobilization and national emergency we need to drive for the safety of our families,” they argued. In addition, they maintained that driving was not un-Islamic as evidenced by women riding donkeys and horses during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The confrontation became a mini-riot by the time the women and their male relatives were taken to police headquarters for interrogation. The men were forced to sign documents agreeing that the women would never drive again before they were released.
The protest occurred as US troops mobilized in Saudi Arabia at the outbreak of the first Gulf War; the sight of female American soldiers driving jeeps inspired the Saudi women – and the presence of the world’s media emboldened them. With the whole world watching, the women gambled that the government’s response would be measured. But this was not to be. The next day, leaflets were distributed throughout Riyadh denouncing the women, charging that the “whores” had driven while wearing shorts, disrespected and assaulted the mutawaeen and – in a move unprecedented in Saudi Arabia – printed the names, addresses and phone numbers of all 47 drivers before concluding: “Do what you believe is appropriate regarding these women.” Within hours, more than 20,000 mutawaeen and fundamentalist supporters converged outside the governor’s palace to demand action be taken. As the protests escalated, a news blackout was ordered – muzzling any progressive support for the women. The pressure increased, and the government bowed: Interior Minister Naif bin Abdulaziz declared the drive-by ‘un-Islamic’ and ordered the suspension or firing of the protestors from their jobs, confiscated their passports and banned them and their male relatives from travelling abroad. The women endured death threats and social stigma that continues to this day.
More than two decades after the protest, Saudi Arabia – a member of the United Nations – remains the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. By denying women the right to independently drive a vehicle, Saudi Arabia is disobeying Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” In addition to Saudi women’s complete dependence on men to chauffeur them around, their options for public transportation are severely limited. Women are forbidden from taking taxis or hiring private drivers. Most bus companies in Riyadh and Jeddah don’t allow women to ride buses and those that do insist on women using separate entrances and sitting in reserved sections in the back of the bus. These violations of human rights are no different from the Jim Crow laws of America’s Deep South and South African apartheid – contemptible, inhumane systems condemned worldwide by civil rights advocates.
Gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia a feminist issue. And that makes it a humanist issue.