Wajiha al-Huweidar

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (WOMENSENEWS)–A woman drives a car in a grainy video posted on YouTube, her silhouette framed by a loose veil as she congratulates women on March 8, International Women’s Day. She is Wajiha al-Huweidar, a Saudi women’s rights advocate.

"Obviously, I’m driving my car in a remote area," al-Huweidar says in Arabic. "Only in remote areas in Saudi Arabia are women allowed to drive, I’m sad to say. In cities–where they really need to drive–it is still forbidden."

Hundreds of responses poured into YouTube: some praised her bravery, others called her a whore.

The same day the video was posted, al-Huweidar and other activists presented a petition signed by 126 women to the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef Bin Abd al-Aziz. The signatories are women with driving licenses from other countries, offering to teach their countrywomen how to turn the wheel.

In January the government signaled that the driving ban will be lifted, and many people seeking reforms in Saudi Arabia believe this is the year. In the meantime, it remains a lightning rod for women’s rights activists who see it as a first step toward easing the rules of male guardianship that follow their every move.

Al-Huweidar learned how to drive as a graduate student in Virginia over 10 years ago. For her, the driving ban is especially important because, unlike wealthy Saudi women, she cannot afford a chauffeur.

"Driving is not the most important thing, but it is a symbol of freedom," al-Huweidar says from her home in Dhahran, a city in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. "We want to achieve some kind of justification as humans."

Women’s driving was officially forbidden in 1932, when the authoritarian monarchy was established. Saudis observe a strict form of Wahabbism that sharply curtails women’s freedom of movement under its interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, which is observed across the legal system with the exception of secular tribunals for commercial disputes and complaints against government officials.

‘Mahram’ Necessary for Everything

Saudi Arabia’s Sharia dictates that in order to travel a woman needs permission from her "mahram," a male guardian who is her husband or relative. The mahram is also necessary for education, marriage, financial transactions, having surgery; everything. In Saudi Arabia, women are never mature enough, legally speaking.

"Our biggest problem is that we have no say in the biggest questions of our lives; we have no control over them but, rather, depend on the mahram," al-Huweidar says. "We want to correct this, but are starting from the simpler issues (such as driving) because they have nothing to do with Islam or taboos. They are rights taken away from women."

Some theologians have voiced fears of women being harassed by men if they drive. Other influential religious scholars have pointed out that the driving ban is not based on Islam but on social beliefs. A February poll in the Arab News found that only 10 of 125 male respondents categorically rejected women behind the wheel.

Al-Huweidar, her friend and colleague Fawfiyya al-Aouni and other activists have quietly but steadily tried to advance women’s rights.

Al-Aouni knows the price of making too much noise. Her husband, Ali al-Dumaini, signed a petition calling for constitutional reforms in 2003 and was sentenced to nine years in prison; he was pardoned after three months when the new king, Abdallah, took the throne.

No License to Protest

"Our group is not allowed to function officially because we don’t have a license. The government doesn’t grant such things, and we don’t expect to obtain one in the near future," al-Aouni says.

Last year, an organization calling itself Ansar al-Mar’a (Supporters of Women) tried in vain to register with the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs.

The lack of a law allowing nongovernmental organizations to operate–or political parties to exist–leaves the few activist Saudi women little option but to campaign clandestinely. But reforms are getting harder to keep at bay.

"The Internet has brought an enormous change into our lives; we can share information and ideas online," al-Huweidar says. Although Saudi editors refuse to publish her anymore, she contributes to online Shiite discussion boards–which she says are more progressive than Sunni sites, the majority branch of Islam in Saudi Arabia–and is a regular guest on Arab satellite talk shows.

The issue of guardianship was highlighted in January by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which questioned Saudi officials in Geneva. The February visit of the U.N. special rapporteur, Yakin Erturk, a Turkish Muslim, also shed light on the position of Saudi women.

Around the time of Erturk’s visit, two cases related to guardianship drew international criticism. Last year a 19-year-old woman was condemned to 200 lashes and six months’ imprisonment for being with an unrelated man in a car. She and the man were both attacked and raped. King Abdallah later pardoned her, while her seven assailants–and male companion–received sentences ranging from two to nine years.

Forced to Divorce

In another case, a married couple was forced to divorce because her male relatives thought his tribal stock wasn’t noble enough. "We had been happily married for three years," the husband, Mansour al-Timani, tells Women’s eNews by phone as he is not allowed to meet foreigners or journalists.

"It all changed when her sister got married to a Bedouin of high stock, and that’s when her half-brothers decided that I wasn’t good enough for her."

After a court ordered the divorce, the wife, Fatima Azzaz, was first taken to a prison and then to an orphanage because she resisted returning to her relatives. "Unfortunately there is no justice in our country," al-Timani says. "We are victims. Even if they killed me I wouldn’t accept the court’s decision."

Erturk left Saudi Arabia with assurances from officials that the couple would be reunited.

A Saudi woman's travel permit.

"I’m happy that these cases came to light, because this is a sign of freedom, because just years before the newspapers would not be able to publish something like that," says Fawziyya al-Bakr, a professor for female students at King Saud University’s education college. Women gained the right to study 40 years ago and now 58 percent of all university students are female, although engineering, agriculture and geology remain forbidden.

"I think the biggest issue is the guardianship and the legal capacity in front of the law," says al-Bakr, who sits in the women-only floor of Riyadh’s Kingdom Mall. It’s a little past 9 a.m. and the Thai waitresses are about to open the coffee shop. Women can walk unveiled here, and some have opened their black, ankle-length obligatory uniform, the abaya, to reveal jeans and stilettos underneath.

Al-Bakr participated in the 1990 protest in which 47 women drove around Riyadh. They were all briefly detained and called "fallen women" by the religious police.

Women have gained some nominal victories since then. Three years ago women were allowed to run in board elections for local chambers of commerce. As of this year, Saudi businesswomen have been able to rent hotel rooms alone, and a women-only hotel opened in Riyadh; no need for a mahram’s permission.

Sanna Negus is an author and a Middle East correspondent for Finnish TV and radio.

This series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.