RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — EDITOR’S NOTE — Saudi King Salman has announced women in the ultraconservative kingdom will be able to drive for the first time next summer.
The decision comes after decades of female drivers facing arrest and harassment. In 1990, a major protest saw 50 female drivers ply the streets of Riyadh, the country’s capital. They later were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs. More than 20 years later, a woman was sentenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driving, though the late King Abdullah overturned the sentence.
The Associated Press is making available its story by correspondent Donna Fenn Heintzen of the Nov. 6, 1990 protest as part of its coverage of King Salman’s royal decree.
About 50 Saudi women, saying the kingdom’s ban on female drivers would leave them helpless in the event of war, took to the streets for an unprecedented protest Tuesday – behind the wheel.
The women, many of them completely veiled except for their eyes, piled into 15 cars and took a drive through the capital. For them, it was a daring act of protest.
“This has nothing whatsoever to do with politics,” one woman explained. “If a crisis erupts, we must drive for the sake of our families. We cannot stay immobile like sitting ducks.”
All the women taking part in the protest were experienced drivers, having learned the skill outside of Saudi Arabia.
But they were unfamiliar with their own cars. One woman turned on her headlights and windshield wipers while trying to roll down her electronic window to speak with a reporter.
She laughed good-naturedly: “I don’t even know how to open the window.”
Most of the women had only ridden in the back seats of their luxury sedans driven by foreign chauffeurs.
The driving ban has been a topic of heated debate, with conservative citizens arguing that the Islamic prohibition against men and women mingling in public included women drivers.
Others have pointed out that women were allowed to lead camels in the era of Prophet Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic faith, so modern women should be able to drive cars. Having a chauffeur, especially a foreigner, was a form of mingling with strange men, they point out.
The women met in a supermarket parking lot on Riyadh’s King Abdel-Aziz Road. In a flurry of excitement, they revved their engines, just as the muezzin’s call signaled the end of the afternoon prayer.
Husbands, brothers, and a crowd of Filipino drivers stood watching with open admiration.
Passing motorists stared in disbelief as the women drove expertly down Riyadh’s highways.
Some joined the convoy and pulled over to the side of the road when the women were finally stopped by the police, after they had driven for about 30 minutes.
The policemen also blocked observers trying to speak with the women.
“We don’t know what will happen next,” said a woman in one of the cars. “This is just the first little bit of freedom.”
One informed source told AP that the women had written a letter to Riyadh governor Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz informing him that the “drive-in” protest would take place, but not revealing the date or place.
Some of the women said they were prepared to go to jail.
With the onset of the Persian Gulf crisis, King Fahd had instituted a program opening the way for Saudi women to volunteer for nursing and first aid. The emboldened group who staged the drive-in included businesswomen, housewives and a woman who was eight months pregnant.
Many women in the kingdom have speculated that the arrival of tens of thousands of female drivers among the Kuwaiti refugees and in the U.S. military could prompt a change in the Saudi laws.