“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”
This is what activist Manal al-Sharif tweeted after Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced that it will lift the ban on women drivers.
Saudi King Salman ordered that women be allowed to drive cars, ending a conservative tradition seen by rights activists as an emblem of the Islamic nation’s repression of women.
Sharif , a prominent Saudi activist born in the holy city of Mecca, is among the many women who had taken the driving ban head on. In 2011, she organised a campaign ‘Women2drive’ and drove the car with her brother sitting next to her. Sharif, who says she didn’t hear pop music till she was 21, was arrested by the secret police at night and sent to jail without any trial.
“I’m a mother of two, I’m 38, I’m a consultant. And I’m still a minor before the law.” Sharif tells news outlet SBS.
Her book ‘Daring to Drive’ encompasses her struggle to drive and tells of the society in which ultra-conservative codes define lives.
Sharif is not the only one woman from the Islamic kingdom to strain against the patriarchal rules. Activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested in 2014 for driving into Saudi Arabia from United Arab Emirates. She filmed her defiance and was detained by authorities. Her act was featured in the Frontline documentary ‘Saudi Arabia Uncovered’, which showed footage captured secretly of alleged human rights violations inside the Kingdom.
Hthloul reacted to the news of the ban’s reversal on Twitter, saying, “Praise be to Allah.”
The activist was jailed for 73 days on charges of terror before being released without a trial. Hathloul, married to a stand-up comedian and writer Fahad Albutairi, says in the 2016 documentary: “I try to represent their (women’s) rights.”
“Some of them don’t believe that it’s their own rights. They refuse it and reject it. But I believe that they’re imprisoned in their old ways and their old mindset or they just fear freedom,” she says, adding that she has received death threats because of her campaign.
While women in other Muslim countries drive freely, the Kingdom’s blanket ban has attracted negative publicity for years. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibited women from driving, but they were not issued licenses and were detained if they attempted to drive.
Hathloul was barred from travelling outside the country and she tells Frontline she was made to sign a pledge that she wouldn’t campaign publically. Hathloul’s images of herself on social media show she has shoulder-length hair and she doesn’t always wear a veil. Her Twitter account is linked to her group Arab Feminists.
A BBC report says Hathloul was arrested again at the King Fahd International Airport in Dammam on June 4, and was denied access to a lawyer or her family.
In 1990, 50 women 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.
‘Society is ready’
The decision to lift the ban on women driving is viewed as part of Crown Prince Khaled bin Salman’s efforts to reform the ultra-conservative Kingdom.
Prince Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington and the King’s son, says letting women drive is a “huge step forward” and that the “society is ready”.
“This is the right time to do the right thing.” Women will be allowed to obtain licenses without the permission of a male relative.
“I am really excited. This is a good step forward for women’s rights,” says Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights activists. Speaking to The Associated Press from Riyadh, she said women were “happy” but also that the change was “the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for”.
Youssef took part in numerous driving campaigns, including a widely publicised effort in 2013 when dozens of women across the kingdom uploaded videos to YouTube of themselves driving in Saudi Arabia. Some videos showed families and male drivers giving women a “thumbs-ups,” suggesting many were ready for the change.
In the past few years, the Kingdom has incrementally granted women more rights and visibility, including participation in the Olympic Games in London and Rio, positions on the country’s top consultative council and the right to run and vote in local elections in 2015.
Despite these openings, Saudi women remain largely subject to the whims of men due to guardianship laws, which bar them from obtaining a passport, travelling abroad or marrying without the consent of a male relative. Women who attempt to flee abusive families have also faced imprisonment or been forced into shelters.
Many of those same ultra-conservative clerics, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, have also spoken out in the past against women driving, playing sports or entering the workforce. They argue such acts corrupt society and lead to sin.
One Saudi cleric even said in 2013 that driving could affect a woman’s ovaries and hurt her fertility. That same year, around 150 clerics and religious scholars held a rare protest outside the Saudi king’s palace against efforts by women seeking the right to drive.
(With agency inputs)