Saudi Arabia’s announcement in September that women would be granted the right to drive not only put an end to one of the world’s most backward and discriminatory forms of social control — it also amounted to an implicit admission from the absolute monarchy that change in the kingdom can come from the bottom up … eventually. In 1990, a group of Saudi women got behind the wheels of their cars in the first protest against the draconian regulation. Now, more than a quarter century later, they are finally able to declare victory.
The kingdom cracked down hard on the 47 women who participated in that initial act of civil disobedience almost three decades ago. The king suspended them from government jobs, and preachers denounced them as sexually loose women out to ruin the country. Fawziah al-Bakr, now a university professor and sociologist, recalled one man shouting at her as she drove in that first protest: “I want to dig a hole to bury you all!”
Both civic activism and economy reality, however, would fuel a gradual change to Saudi Arabia’s social mores. Today, more than half of Saudi university students are women — though they still make up roughly only one-fifth of the workforce, with their inability to drive one of the factors holding them back from finding jobs. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who spearheaded the end to the driving ban, also has ambitious economic reform plans that would be difficult to realize without increasing female participation. The building social pressure would have a gradual but eventually massive effect on the kingdom: By the time women were granted the right to drive, according to a poll, nearly four out of every five Saudi citizens approved of the measure.
Other Saudi women would eventually follow in the footsteps of those who launched the first protest — and they would make it clear that the right to drive was only the first step in a larger effort to transform the role of women in the kingdom. Manal al-Sharif, a computer scientist by training, was driven to protest after she was forced to walk home from a doctor’s appointment and was jeered and harassed by Saudi men along the way. In 2011, she posted a YouTube video of herself driving that received more than 700,000 views in a single day. For her efforts, she was detained and pushed out of her job; the institutionalized discrimination would eventually force her to leave Saudi Arabia entirely. In a final parting blow, the kingdom refused to approve her marriage to a non-Saudi, meaning that her son is unable to receive a visa to her home country.
Now that Saudi women will be allowed to drive starting in June 2018, Sharif is setting her sights higher. Saudi women still face discrimination in getting hired for traditionally “male” fields, such as science or engineering, and Sharif wants to ensure that universities allow women to pursue degrees in whichever field they want. The next frontier, she says, is abolishing the guardianship system that makes Saudi women legally dependent on a husband, father, or brother — and thus unable to pass along citizenship to their children. “I am a mother, I pay my own bills but, legally, I’m a minor,” she said. “I can’t do anything. I have to go to my father to get my passport. It’s outrageous.”
As a child, even Sharif had believed the state-sanctioned tale about the women who had protested in 1990 and blamed them for strengthening popular support for the driving ban. It was only as she grew up, and experienced discrimination firsthand, that she came to see the women as role models. Now that change may be coming to Saudi Arabia, however slowly, these women are looking ahead to the next battle to push the kingdom, kicking and screaming, into modernity. As Noura al-Ghanem, a 61-year-old retired elementary school employee who helped organize the initial protests, put it: “What’s important is that our kingdom entered the 21st century — finally!”
David Kenner is Middle East editor at Foreign Policy.
Bakr, a sociologist, has continued to research the role of Saudi women in schools and in the workplace. In 2016, she co-authored a study on the relationship between health problems such as obesity and diabetes in Saudi women and their level of physical activity.
Monera al-Nahedh works at the Arab Thought Foundation, an organization that supports education reform in the Arab world and sponsors events meant to promote Arab culture.