By Huda Mohsin
The ongoing prohibition on driving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands out as one of the most pervasive limitations to women’s visibility, physical movement and their full participation in the public sphere. Significantly, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving (Bashraheel, 2009). Leaving aside many other forms of gender inequality, this constitutes one of the major obstacles placed upon Saudi women.
To start with, the “Women2Drive” movement is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and best organized form of resilience ever put into place by Saudi female activists. It was not their first organized act of civil disobedience as the origins of the movement can be traced back to the beginning of the 1990s, when 47 women staged a protest and drove around the capital city of Riyadh in resistance to the ban. Nevertheless, neither these earlier attempts to protest nor the other equally scattered efforts managed to attract as much media attention as “Women2Drive”.
It was in June 2011 that a group of Saudi women, inspired by the wave of Arab uprisings, decided to revive the movement through initiating a campaign that encouraged women to drive. Their first initiative was to set up the “Women2Drive” campaign on Facebook under the slogan “Teach me how to drive so that I can protect myself.” Their effort was conceived as part of a broader movement, “Right2Dignity”, aiming to end all types of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia (HRW, 2013).
The protest was launched at the right time, in a country where no other significant public uprising could overshadow the women’s demonstrations. The activists also showed a clever understanding of the Internet, especially the social media platforms, making it easy for both protesters and the media to follow the movement’s upcoming strategies.
Manal Al-Sharif, one of the “Women2Drive” activists, became the face of the revived movement when she posted online video of herself driving, taken by fellow protester Wajeha al-Huwaider. In one of the scenes, she urged women to learn how to drive by addressing them in Arabic: “We are ignorant when it comes to driving. You’ll see women with a PhD and they don’t know how to drive. We want to impose change in the country” (Medeiros, 2013). The video went viral within two days, while Manal was arrested and later released after significant international pressure. This incident increased the media attention and brought the plight of Saudi women to the forefront, with global coverage on mainstream media outlets, social media and feminist networks.
“Women2Drive” highlighted both the practical necessity of driving and the danger of being prevented to do so in emergency situations (Sutter, 2012). It triggered a variety of responses ranging from praise to condemnation, as many international observers applauded the movement and the courage of its participants.
Saudi women’s efforts continued during 2013, when activists arranged another grassroots campaign that took place after a group of Saudi women had agreed on October 26th, 2013 as a day for defying the state ban on women driving. On that same day, they launched an online petition web-site (http://www.oct26driving.com), calling for women to get behind the steering wheel and drive individually (Casey, 2013).
The supporters circulated videos of previous campaigns and uploaded new videos and photos of themselves driving, entirely organizing themselves through social media outlets. The online initiative was boosted by Saudi Arabia’s high Internet penetration, and revealed the important role of cyberspace in facilitating online connective actions.
While women in Saudi Arabia continue to be banned from driving, the activists’ campaign resonated globally, transcended local and regional borders, and brought the issue of driving on the local and international agenda. It has also marked an explicit shift in the Saudi discourse regarding this matter, as in November 2014 the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia has opened an unprecedented discussion around the issue of women's driving. Significantly, it has proposed the possibility for women aged 30 and up to drive during predetermined specific hours of the day (Mayhew, 2014). And while it is difficult to pinpoint the exact source of this shift, the contribution of feminist cyber-activism seems a very plausible aspect.
(Photo creator_Daniela Doris, https://www.instagram.com/