In October this year, May al-Sawyan caused controversy by driving to her local grocery store. This act of defiance on the roads of Saudi Arabia is part of a growing campaign in the region called Women2Drive. It takes place amidst a wider struggle in the country not just for female rights but for human rights. Saudi Arabia and Vatican City remain the only countries in the world where women are prohibited to vote. Not only that, girls and women of all ages in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from travelling, studying, working, getting married or enrolling in higher education to name but a few, without the permission of a male guardian.
As I sit writing this article in my university accommodation, license in purse, travel photos plastered over the walls, I am not only reminded of my privileges but of some uncomfortable truths about our own commitments here in the UK to the ideals of democracy and liberty. Our largest arms deal in history is with Saudi Arabia; in only 2005 we signed a weapons deal with the nation at the value of £6 billion. In an expression of public support for the rights of Saudi Arabian women to drive, US secretary of state John Kerry has said, ‘everyone knows where the United States stand on this issue.’ As US financial support to the state responsible for such horrors continues to the tune of tens of billions, I ask the question, do we?
Although there is no official law against women driving, religious edicts are often interpreted in such a way that prevents the issue of licenses, and women are barred from using public transport. This means women have to rely on male family members or personal chauffeurs, if funds allow.
A series of video clips have emerged documenting the entry of women on to the roads, such as May al-Sawyan, and views of this footage are in their hundreds of thousands. On October 26th as part of the driving campaign, around 60 women claimed to have gotten behind the wheel. The group also report to continue to receive images and footage of many more women flouting the ban. This has not been without fierce backlash. Many of the participants report to be in fear of repercussions, with one woman expressing concerns about being tailed by the secret police since the event. A school teacher and columnist, Tariq Al Mubarak, has been imprisoned for his support. Around 150 clerics rallied outside one of the king’s palaces in opposition, and across social media, a Facebook group has appeared advocating the beating of women that drive. The page has 2,500 likes.
Many reports say things are changing, if incrementally; King Abdullah recently announced that women will be able to vote in municipal elections in 2015. Al-Fassi, who writes for the state-run newspaper, said that two years ago she was prohibited from publishing an article that mentioned women’s driving and had to change the wording. “This time I wrote a long article and not a single word was changed. It is unprecedented,” she said.