A WOMAN disembarks from a car outside a mall in Riyadh on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June.—AFP
A WOMAN disembarks from a car outside a mall in Riyadh on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June.—AFP

KING Salman’s decision to allow women to drive marks the end of a long and arduous journey for scores of Saudi female drivers who faced arrest, harassment, slander and loss of jobs to get behind the wheel.

The first major campaign by Saudi women to drive took place almost 27 years ago, as US troops were massing in the kingdom in preparation for expelling Iraqi soldiers that had invaded Kuwait. The women believed the presence of major international news outlets would guarantee their message would get out and the Saudi government would be reticent to crack down on them with the world watching. They were mistaken.

“A lot of sacrifices have been made not just by the women who drove but also by the people who supported them — families, male relatives, activists and writers,” Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian who has closely followed the issue, said.

Here’s a timeline based on al-Fassi’s experiences and reporting from Saudi Arabia over the years.

Nov 6: 1990: Forty-seven women met that sunny afternoon at a mall parking lot in Riyadh. The 15 women who had international driving licences dismissed their drivers and got behind the wheel as the rest joined them in the cars. They cruised around Riyadh for more than an hour before they were stopped by the religious police, who enforce Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. The women were jailed, though most were released a few hours later to their male guardians and the rest were freed the next day.

Nov 9, 1990: On the following Friday, clerics denounced the drivers in their sermons as criminals and harlots. Names had leaked out by then and leaflets trashed them as “fallen women” and anonymous callers made death threats. The women lost their jobs for more than two years and they were banned from travel for a year. The women have quietly marked the anniversary each year, once even ordering a cake shaped like a Volkswagen beetle with women piled inside it.

May 2005: Mohammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Consultative Council at the time, suggested that his fellow legislators think about studying the possibility of allowing women over 35 or 40 to drive. He touched off a controversy in which he was demonised, accused of encouraging women to mix with men and being driven by carnal instincts.

Mid 2006: Car showrooms staffed by women for female buyers popped up in Saudi Arabia. Saleswomen would discuss automotive features, but were not allowed to promote driving or take a test drive with a potential buyer.

September 2007: A group of women formed the Committee of Demanders of Women’s Right to Drive Cars to lobby for the right to get behind the wheel. They collected more than 3,000 signatures and sent two petitions to then King Abdullah.

March 8, 2008: On International Women’s Day, committee member Wajeeha al-Howaider posted a video of herself on YouTube driving in the Eastern Province, the first of its kind. The government didn’t punish her.

June 17, 2011: At the height of the Arab Spring, a group of women led by Manal al-Sharif, then 32, got behind the wheels of their cars. Al-Sharif was detained for nine days.

Oct 26, 2013: More than 60 Saudi women, responding to a call by a movement called the Oct 26 campaign, got into their cars to protest the ban on women driving despite warnings by police and ultraconservatives. Several uploaded videos on social media. Some were detained. They had to sign a pledge not to drive again and were only released to a male guardian.

December 2014: Activist Loujain Alhathloul was arrested and detained for more than two months after she attempted to drive across the border from Saudi Arabia to the UAE.

April 2016: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now crown prince and heir to the throne, rolled out an ambitious programme called Vision 2030 to modernise the economy, open up the country and increase women’s participation in the workforce. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier, he said that “we believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain”. A few days later he told reporters Saudi Arabia wasn’t ready to end the ban.

Sept 26, 2017: The official Saudi Press Agency said the ban will end and committees from various ministries have been set up to examine implementation.

—By arrangement with Bloomberg-The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2017

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