National Geographic News
Photo of Ms. Umm Ibrahim driving her vehicle in Riyadh, an act that is banned in Saudi Arabia.

Umm Ibrahim sits behind the wheel of her vehicle as she drives in Riyadh.

Photograph by Amena Bakr, Reuters

Photo of Rym Tina Ghazal, author of the article.

Photograph by Rym Tina Ghazal

Rym Ghazal

for National Geographic

Published October 25, 2013

"Teach me how to drive." The text message came recently from a friend on my mobile phone.

In most parts of the world, there would be nothing unusual in the request. But this plea came from a Saudi woman dreaming of the day when she can finally sit in the driver's seat without being punished.

"I can't go anywhere without begging some male member of the family to take me out for a drive, even to my sister's house just a few blocks away from here," the mother of three explained.

Like all women in Saudi Arabia, she is not allowed to drive a car. Women have never been allowed to drive in the conservative kingdom. Only a few Bedouin women in isolated villages—and some expatriate women living in residential compounds—are known to drive within limited areas near their homes.

But my friend and thousands like her say they are fed up with a de facto ban that has no legal backing. Islamic sharia (law) says nothing about banning women drivers. Instead, the prohibition is a product of Saudi Arabia's traditional, staunchly male-dominated society.

In the time of the Prophet Muhammed, over 1,400 years ago, women rode camels and horses alongside the Prophet and his men. Some even joined battles and fought with swords next to the men.

But in modern-day Saudi Arabia, where cars have replaced camels, women need drivers to go anywhere. If your family can't afford to hire a chauffeur, which many average Saudi families can't—that can cost up to 2,000 riyals (570 USD) a month—then you are stuck at home for most of the day, waiting for some male member of the family to graciously take you out.

My friend, like many women, is tired of waiting.

"I will be hitting the street with my sisters this month," she declares, referring to the "October 26th" movement that is expected to draw many women drivers to the Saudi streets on Saturday in a peaceful mass demonstration against the ban.

A Social Right

This will be the third such protest, following demonstrations in 1990 and 2011 when dozens of women drove in opposition of the ban. Those courageous women paid greatly for their defiance: Those caught by the traffic police were fined and jailed, while others lost their jobs and status in society, and were banned from traveling and shunned by religious figures in the kingdom.

"I was fired immediately from my job when my boss knew I defied the driving ban and drove my car," says Madeha Al Ajroush, a Saudi psychotherapist and photographer who has an American driving license and took part in both of the previous protests. She plans to drive again on October 26.

"We women were humiliated, threatened, and continue to be treated like inferior beings. The fight for women's rights has never historically been easy, so we don't expect it to be easy to gain this basic, yet very important right to drive," she says.

Some have not even waited for the 26th: Women have recently been spotted driving on the main roads in major cities across Saudi Arabia, and some are posting videos of themselves behind the steering wheel on social media sites such as YouTube and Twitter. The campaign even has a theme song.

Driving is a "social right," say Saudi women, and, supported by many Saudi men, they are refusing to let it go this time. They want the issue to be finally resolved this year.

There are signs of progress: King Abdullah recently appointed women to his Shoura advisory council for the first time, and this month three of those women introduced a recommendation to lift the driving ban. But other council members rejected this push and refused to discuss the recommendation further.

Despite the lack of Islamic backing for the ban, some religious clerics continue to try to dissuade women from driving, with the latest declaration from one sheikh, or religious scholar, listing "damage to ovaries" as one of the reasons to avoid driving.

Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan warned women on the website Sabq.org that "physiological science" has shown that driving "automatically affects the ovaries and pushes up the pelvis ... and that is why children born to most women who continuously drive suffer from clinical disorders of varying degrees."

About 150 clerics and religious scholars also held a rare protest outside the Saudi king's palace in Jeddah earlier this week against the driving campaign, blaming the U.S. as the mastermind behind the 26th protest.

Taking the Wheel

Growing up in Saudi, I regularly heard lectures from religious figures warning us girls of one thing or another, from how Western music would "corrupt our souls" to how riding a bicycle would "damage a girl's innocence" and take away her virginity, ruining the chance for a good marriage.

As a teenager, I rebelled against rules all the time. Several times my friends and I dressed up as Saudi men—donning the long white robe known as a kandoura or dishdasha and tying up our hair under the ghutra scarf—to try our hand at driving. My friends had many brothers, who in turn had many cars, including some luxurious sports models. We would simply pick one that had been replaced by a newer version and drive off in it without anyone noticing. We would stay within the vicinity of a residential area, avoiding main roads.

Thankfully, we were never caught, mostly I think because we made sure we acted boyish and rowdy in our male attire. Besides, there is an unfortunate tradition of males getting behind the wheel as young as 13, so we didn't really stand out for not having facial hair. We scratched and bumped the cars in places as we learned how to maneuver them, but no one seemed to notice, and if they did, they probably just blamed it on the boys in the family.

Emergency Response

I didn't realize that these moments of defiance would end up saving a life.

Many women in Saudi Arabia have faced emergencies when there was no man around to assume driving duties. In my case, it happened when my baby brother was having breathing difficulties at our residential compound in Jeddah.

It was a Friday, a weekend, and my father was on a business trip. This was before mobile phones, and the on-call doctor at our regular clinic was nowhere to be found. I can't describe the panic that overcame my mother as she clutched my brother and ran from door to door trying to find a male neighbor at a time of day when most were out. That image haunts me to this day.

Even though I felt confident behind the wheel, I wasn't a good driver. The decision was made for me, as my mother thrust the car keys into my hand and said: "Drive."

I drove my father's Audi across the compound, and then outside, shaking as I looked left, right, and center. I was about to make a left turn at one of the main roads when we recognized a couple in a car about to turn into our street. Without even asking, my mother jumped out of our car and into theirs with the baby, leaving me, and my little sister in the back, confused over what was happening.

This was my introduction to how every other woman who is not allowed to drive must feel when faced with an emergency: helpless and fearful of what might happen if she is caught.

Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I am reminded that driving is a privilege. I feel too old to have to wait for my father or the driver to take me out.

Thanks to the courage of Saudi women—and some Saudi men—there is hope that this will soon change.

(See "Trail Notes: Billi Cowgirls.")

26 comments
M. Chase
M. Chase

I learned something interesting about Muslims the other day. Sunni and Shiite Muslims do respect women more than they respect men. They believe that when a man looks at a woman, his only thoughts are of lust. When a woman looks at a man, they think "Oh, he's a nice guy." or something like that. Because most Muslims want to keep their thoughts as pure as possible, women wear the head coverings and long clothing and have their prayers separate from the men. The driving issue in Saudi Arabia is a government matter, not a religious one.

M. Chase
M. Chase

Fantastic! It's beyond time for Saudi women to take action. If women win the battle and are allowed to drive in the Middle East, think of the floodgates that will open! Currently, women in the Saudi Arabia are treated like dirt. It is clear that with this enemy conquered, the Middle East will never be the same in a positive way. 

To the Saudi Arabian government: I don't understand your logic. What's the worst think a woman could do behind the wheel of a vehicle? Improve your economy by being able to take jobs more easily? Put more innovative ideas into improving your society? Honestly, you'd think that government officials there would think about these kinds of things.

Jazmin Torres
Jazmin Torres

women take the wheel, take it from their hands...

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

What a backward country Saudi Arabia must be....with men so insecure that they must force their women to wear burkas, refuse to let them drive etc.  All to keep them in tow so that they don't meet anyone by themselves. Of course none of this applies to men...one wonders why they not required to wear burkas, or are allowed to drive..  What besides the obvious is so different about them? It certaintly isn't intelligence as most Arabian women we have met far outweigh men in that sphere.  We think Sadi Arabia would be better off it things were reversed and women were placed in charge. Then they would come out of the dark ages into the moden world. Don't jump to conclusions...El could be male, or perhaps female...who really knows.

SANJAY SEN
SANJAY SEN

Nothing great is achieved without breaking established rules. Go ahead, change the game.

Onkell C.
Onkell C.

I cannot understand..!!! do my wife & daughters belong to a different species..??

LI Xiaowei
LI Xiaowei

Women should drive by themselves!

Ena Koka
Ena Koka

She is really brave. Yes, provide free chauffeurs for every family! I really hope that some things will change there, equality is very important...

Dr.Syed Hafeezuddin
Dr.Syed Hafeezuddin

Good beginning, I was in saudia for 17 years and I know the condition of women there but they need a real lift and hope this will help them. 

Fathima Amanat
Fathima Amanat

Inshallah, at one point the people with power will have to realize their mistake and step forward to correct it. But these women are strong and guided. They are only standing up for what their own right  is and if the people with the authority to change the law ignore it and reject it, then they should know that in a time in the future, they will be regretful.

Barbara Campion
Barbara Campion

A colleague of mine spent 2 weeks in Saudi Arabia on a course.  One time, she and some male colleagues were driving and got into a (small) accident).  Because she was not related to her colleagues, she had to hide in the car to ensure that no one saw her!  Saudi Arabia should rescind the driving ban for women -- or provide free chauffeurs for every family.  They could probably afford it!

Jo Epps
Jo Epps

My heart breaks for our Saudi sisters.  I pray that God will give them strength and protect them.  I realize there will be a price to pay.  Those in power never like giving up control.  Yet God loves these woman and He will help them.  It may look different and may take longer then we like but change will come.

It still amazes me how deceived we as a human race can be.  We control, dominate and oppress others even those we confess to love.  Yet, God demonstrates HIS love for us by giving us the freedom to choose. 

Hannah Vandervelde
Hannah Vandervelde

Well, I'm proud that they're taking a stand for women's rights! Good work, women! I just pray that it will be a peaceful protest and that they aren't hurt!

Allison DaRosa
Allison DaRosa

Since when do you lose your virginity riding a bicycle?

lalitha krishnamurthy
lalitha krishnamurthy

Well, this is one of the taboo thrust on certain women  that is at least very obvious and needs to be challenged. But there are many sutler patriarchal taboos that women face day in and day out in many cultures even though women are allowed o drive around!

It takes both men and women to relook into their cultural conditioning and change them to create level playing field for  both sexes.

Ed Cannon
Ed Cannon

I believe the men are fearful that with the new freedom of being more self supportive, the ladies will leave their dumb a**** & find someone who treats them with equality.

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

aucune loi de dieu ne leur interdit de conduire! au contraire au  temps du PROPHET "s a a s " les femmes montaient les chevaux et les dromadaires alors qu'elles avaient le hawdej à leur dispositions. c'est vraiment l'ère de l'obscurité dans le monde islamique  comme le prédisait le prophète  salla ALLAH alaihi wa salam

Bill G.
Bill G.

I feel this is just crazy in this day and age, this is just another way to belittle women and remind them of their place in society, far below men.  Very backward looking indeed.

Asrar Farooqui
Asrar Farooqui

i also strongly commend women's driving it will be very good for ksa 's king to introduce a law removing the ban from driving of women.

Tara Barnes
Tara Barnes

I admire these brave women who will not let themselves be oppressed even though consequences could be sever. They are pioneers that should be praised!

Tara Barnes
Tara Barnes

I admire these brave women who will not let themselves be oppressed even though consequences could be sever. They are pioneers that should be praised! 

John C.
John C.

Where exactly in the Koran does it say women aren't allowed to drive?

M. Chase
M. Chase

@ZEINEB MESSAOUDI As you said, women were allowed to ride horses and camels along with men at the time of the prophets thousands of years ago. This may seem like this biggest understatement of the century, but that was a long, long time ago. Saudi Arabia is a lot more troubled than it was at that time. And, at any rate, why would women of Saudi Arabia organize a protest against the ban against them driving if it wasn't actually going on?

Barbara Campion
Barbara Campion

@John C.  It isn't the Quran that's the problem, it's how it's interpreted by a bunch of narrow-minded MEN who believe women should have no rights.  Saudi Arabia is no better, in some ways, than the Taliban was in Afghanistan.

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

See more food news, photos, and videos »