Conflict & Justice

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia

Downtown Riyadh is routinely choked with traffic and that is not a surprise in a city with no public transport system. Still, a close look at who is behind the wheel reveals one thing that sets Saudi Arabia apart:

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All the drivers are men. 

Three years ago, Wajeha al-Huwaider became something of a YouTube sensation in Saudi Arabia when she was videotaped driving a car. Al-Huwaider wanted to make a point. 

“As you can see, I am now driving a car in a rural area,” Al Huwaider said as she drove along. “Women here are allowed to drive in rural areas. Unfortunately, where we need to drive in cities, it remains banned.”

In fact, women driving in rural areas is only tolerated. It is still officially forbidden. Al-Huwaider’s protest wasn’t the first. 20 years ago, Fawzia al-Bakr did something even bolder. It was just after Iraq invaded Kuwait, when Saudi Arabia was readying for war. 

Most of the drivers who worked as chauffeurs left Saudi Arabia, according to al-Bakr. So she and a group of women formed a convoy and got behind the wheel in downtown Riyadh. Al-Bakr smiles at the memory. 

“It’s so funny you because when I drove from the parking lot onto the street, a guy in his car said, ‘Saudi women don’t drive,’ and he said ‘Oh my God’… so I just drove away with my car,” al-Bakr said.

Paying the price

She laughs now, but Al-Bakr, pregnant with her first child at the time, paid a price. She received death threats; she and the others were denounced in mosques across the country. They and their husbands were barred from foreign travel for a year. Some working in government lost their jobs. 

Gen. Mansour al-Turki of the Interior Ministry says Saudi women have more freedom now than they did two decades ago, but there are limits.

“Driving a car is another subject,” al-Turki said. “The public is not interested in that. Of course there are the minority who would like to have this but you cannot provide the minority with such rights, which will be challenged by the majority. So you have to be careful here, you have to be wise on how to provide people with changes.”

Al-Turki says the government’s task is to steer a middle course. There are those who push for greater freedom, he said, and those who pull in the opposite direction. 

“They think there should be no freedom at all, that women should stay home, women should not go to school women should not work. Well, the government wants to be able to change according to the people’s needs.”

Reshaping attitudes

There are many Saudi women who see change as a threat to family unity and their culture. Despite that, women’s lives, and Saudi society, are changing. Dr. Maha al-Muneef is the woman behind reshaping attitudes toward domestic violence. She started the National Family Safety program with approval from King Abdullah in 2005.

“As a pediatrician working in the hospital and seeing abused children, I couldn’t really accept it, and I couldn’t really let it go without really addressing the problems from the beginning from all aspects,” al-Muneef said. 

Al-Muneef has slowly pushed ahead, training social workers, law enforcement officials and judges about the need to put an end to violence in the home. There are still numerous cases of courts letting abusers off lightly. But Al-Muneef said awareness is growing, and she cited the growing number of women who are willing to file reports. 

“I think Saudi Arabia is going to see more and more cases and more and more problems reported,” al-Mumeef said. “Then we are going to start seeing some improvement and some decline in the number of cases.” 

That will probably take years. 

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What angers Fawiza al-Bakr the most, even more than not being able to drive, is the fact that women must have male guardians. 

“We still have the guardianship system,” al Bakr said. “You cannot travel on your own. You cannot even produce your own passport. If I travel, I have to have my husband or any guardianship permission, which I think it's appalling, it's horrible. I think when you take it within our present time you cannot believe that we still actually have these laws against women.”

For all the things she dislikes, al-Bakr agreed the situation has improved. Her own mother became destitute after her husband left to marry another woman. Al-Bakr said it was a tough, but inspiring upbringing. 

“I remember doing cakes and selling them, raising chickens, selling eggs. She was great. And she survived with seven kids.” 

Al-Bakr’s mother was illiterate and shut out of an education, so she made certain her daughters finished university before marrying. Now, al-Bakr is a professor with children of her own. She hopes her teenage daughter will see more change in her lifetime. 

“I was just passing by my daughter’s room and she was actually listening on her laptop. And I said so strange for 14 years old to actually sit and she said, it’s very impressive and I am learning a lot. And you know I would not do this in my age. So they’re looking to the world in a different way. They are looking to themselves as a global citizen,” al-Bakr said. 

That’s not the way many other Saudis see themselves. They prize their culture, their values and their religion. In a country where religious leaders play a powerful role, women’s rights advocates may only see creeping change in the years to come.