Saudi Women Defy National Law & Get Behind The Wheel: Was Their Protest A Success?

October 28, 2013

Planet Earth is becoming homogenized. Thanks to advances in communications and transportation, boundaries between countries, continents, and cultures that were once firm are increasingly fluid. 

This is both good and bad. On the one hand, family members can now call us from anywhere at any time. On the other hand, KFC and McDonald's outlets can now be found in nearly every corner of the globe. (Decide for yourself which of those is good. If either.)

That's not to say that cultural distinctions have been completely erased, though. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women lack many of the freedoms that their peers elsewhere enjoy. Among other things, Saudi women are required to have a man's permission to marry, to travel, and to enroll at college.

They also lack permission to drive. That's not because Saudi law forbids women from driving, but because the government refuses to grant licenses to women. Saudi officials argue that the two are very different things, but the end result is the same.

However, as we reported a few weeks ago, many Saudi women are frustrated with the de facto driving ban. On Saturday, they took to the roads in protest, risking harassment, arrest, and permanent damage to their ovaries in their quest for equality.

That they did this wasn't particularly unusual -- they've held such protests before, most recently in 2011. What's interesting is how the protest happened and how the media covered it.

According to Western outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times, about 60 Saudi women slipped behind the wheel on October 26, the official day of protest. Some took highly public drives, others zipped along backstreets for just a few minutes. However, all of the participants carried licenses from foreign countries -- so although they didn't hold Saudi licenses, they were technically licensed drivers. The tone of reports like these implies that Saturday was an important symbolic protest, even if the number of participants was small.

On the other hand, Arab News, which has close ties to the Saudi government, describes Saturday's event as a dismal failure by upstart female activists: "The Oct. 26 campaign of Saudi women activists to drive fizzled out Saturday as the government's threat of arrests appeared to take effect." The paper also calls into question claims by organizers that over 60 women took part in protest activities. 

Whichever spin is correct -- and frankly, the answer is likely somewhere in-between -- there's no question that many in Saudi Arabia were opposed to the event. Some noted that the protest was planned on Hilary Clinton's birthday, the implication being that the West was trying to subvert traditional Saudi culture. Others claimed that unskilled women drivers would cause traffic accidents and fatalities on a massive scale. And the official protest website was hacked by the opposition.


As the sons and daughters of women who've driven, we know that female motorists can be just as skilled, just as cautious, just as thoughtful and courteous as their male counterparts. (They can also be just as distracted, angry, and reckless, but that's a post for another day.)  

So, try as we might to be culturally sensitive, it's hard for us to see this issue from the Saudi government's perspective. We don't expect the ban on female drivers to drop overnight, but we're hopeful that Saudi women will continue making incremental progress in their own way and on their own terms.


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