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Story Publication logo November 12, 2013

Saudi Arabia's Driven Women

A Saudi employee helps a customer at a dress shop in Al Faisaliah Mall. Image by Kate Brooks. Saudi Arabia, 2013.

An emerging class of female retail workers is raising new questions about the direction of the Saudi...

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Image by Shawn Baldwin/The New York Times/Redux. Saudi Arabia.

On Monday evening, shortly after the call to Isha prayers had sounded from hundreds of mosques across Riyadh, a half dozen women gathered for a small dinner party—gender-segregated, like most Saudi social gatherings—in a residential compound in the eastern part of the city. Their black abayas and headscarves put away in a cupboard near the villa's front door, most of the women wore trousers and silky evening tops. As a maid carried in a platter of roast lamb, one of the women, Fawzia al-Bakr, a writer and university professor, peered distractedly at her iPhone.

"This is not the way to address a king!" Bakr began tapping away at the screen, murmuring apologies to the table. Bakr is one of the forty-seven Saudi women who, on November 6, 1990, drove in a convoy down Riyadh's busy Tahlia Street, demonstrating for the right to drive. (Tahlia is the Arabic word for desalination plant, an important landmark in any Saudi city.) The forty-seven women, still collectively known in the kingdom as "the drivers," were detained, fired from their jobs, and widely pilloried. Today, Bakr is a supporter of the October 26th Campaign, a group of young Saudi women—and a few men—who in late September posted an online petition calling for Saudi women to be allowed to drive. The group has been collecting videos of Saudi women behind the wheel. In response to a request from Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the governor of Riyadh, the October 26th campaigners were drafting a new petition, Bakr explained. Prince Khalid had offered to take the petition to King Abdullah, so it was important that the language be just right, forceful but courteous.

Bakr sent off her edits to the latest draft and put her phone down to the left of her plate, where she could keep an eye on it. She joined her fellow guests in praising the Jerusalem artichoke soup, potato gratin, and purées of celeriac and kale that their hostess, a Danish expatriate who has lived in the Kingdom for decades, had prepared. (Most of the vegetables had been brought in from Copenhagen two days earlier, with the cheerful complicity of Saudi customs.) The women chatted about Arabic sitcoms, about their children, about José Saramago. But the topic of driving kept cropping up; it is infantilizing to spend so much time waiting to be driven here and there, Saudi women say, and drivers' salaries place an enormous financial burden on many households. The women in the group agreed that the protest had reached a particularly sensitive stage.

The campaigners had planned a "drive in" on October 26th, but an Interior Ministry threat to arrest women who drove meant that participation was smaller than they'd hoped. And just hours before the Monday dinner party, Secretary of State John Kerry, in a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, had dodged a reporter's question about women driving, saying that "it's up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure."

Still, the women seemed optimistic that King Abdullah would react favorably to the new petition. "I think the decision will come," Hessah al-Sheikh, another of the women at the dinner, told me when I spoke to her again on Wednesday. Sheikh also took part in the 1990 demonstration for the right to drive and, last year, she co-authored a book documenting the experiences of the participants. Wednesday marked the twenty-third anniversary of that first driving protest, Sheikh noted. Many of the forty-seven women are still close, she said, and each year they exchange phone calls and messages to mark the occasion.

Arguments against women driving have ranged from the idea that the right to drive might lead women to leave their homes unnecessarily, to the notion, raised in September by a conservative cleric, that driving could damage women's ovaries. But today, Sheikh believes, most Saudis agree that women should be permitted to drive. "We need to open schools for teaching women to drive," she said. "We need to prepare our society. Some of the religious people are against it, but we want to make it a choice, so that those women who want to drive can drive."

One of the original organizers of the October 26th Campaign, a woman in her mid-thirties, said that the petition that was sent to King Abdullah through Prince Khalid this week had employed "a new tone that has never been used before."

"We didn't write 'We hope that you may help us,'" she said. "We wrote, 'These are our rights.'"


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


Gender Equality

Gender Equality
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