Millions of eyes were trained on Saudi Arabia this Friday, June 17. Would Saudi women be able to fulfill their online pledge to drive cars, in defiance of the kingdom’s demobilizing ban? As participant Solafa Kurdi told Ms.:
It’s my right. There’s nothing mentioned in my religion that I’m not supposed to be able to drive. I’m willing to take the risk because really, I’m not doing anything wrong.
With the Saudi press ignoring the action, international journalists and supporters and Saudis themselves turned to the web for news, watching as accounts filtered through Twitter and videos were uploaded to YouTube. To non-Saudi eyes, each video might seem less than world shaking–women in black coverings checking their mirrors and changing lanes–but those simple acts thwarted the world’s last ban on women drivers and defied one of the most repressive governments in the world.
Just in time for June 19–Father’s Day in many countries–one video shows a father coaching his daughter in driving.
Early counts estimate that somewhere as many as 51 women took to the wheel on Friday, though organizers say ten times that number may have driven in rural areas (where women have long defied the ban). There have been no confirmed accounts of arrests of women who took part in the protest, in contrast to the last major Saudi women’s driving action, in 1990, when 47 protesters were detained, and subsequently lost their jobs, passports and other freedoms.
Friday’s women drivers were prepared for similar consequences. Maha al-Qahtani told United Arab Emirates paper The National that she packed a prayer mat and a change of clothes, just in case. But the first several police cars she passed did nothing. Then she was stopped–and issued a traffic ticket for “driving without a license.” Al-Qahtani is licensed to drive in Britain, but not Saudi Arabia, for obvious reasons. Kurdi says she never encountered an officer, but says a woman friend drove past two police without being stopped.
Clearly, the government had changed its strategy since the 1990 crackdown–and credit goes in part to the sophisticated tactics of the women organizers. While the women of 1990 staged a brave and visible one-time protest, June 17 was framed as the beginning of a steady movement, one that “will continue until we see a new law to allow women to drive,” as Saudi activist Wajiha al-Huwaider told Reuters. And organizers were careful to avoid the appearance of an uprising. Jeddah-based journalist Sabria Jawhar instructed participants on her blog, “There won’t be any gatherings. Go out only to run important errands, visit the hospital, drop kids off at school, etc.” She added, “To reaffirm our patriotism, fly the Saudi flag and lift up a photo of Abu Mit’ib (the King).”
The international attention also stayed the kingdom’s hand. Thanks to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, international media and supporters have been following the movement from its inception, and women drivers have made headlines in every major international news outlet. Nancy Pelosi and Amnesty International both tweeted their support. A campaign–Honk for Saudi Women–is calling for women around the world to upload videos cheering the drivers on. Change.org organized a campaign asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly back the movement (Update: She did so). And the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.) has flooded the Saudi embassy’s office with calls to lift the driving ban.
The king of Saudi Arabia has yet to issue any formal statement on whether or not the ban will continue. Meanwhile, women in Saudi Arabia will continue to drive to the grocery store, to their jobs, or pick up their children from school. In a country that brutally squelched March democracy protests, the Arab Awakening has reemerged–ushered in by women.
Sign here to urge the Saudi embassy and the United Nations to support driver’s licenses for Saudi women.