With Saudi Arabia lifting its ban on women driving, attention is turning to the women — and men — whose years of protests made change possible.
One post circulating online lists 108 women who have flaunted the nation’s ban on driving. However, Manal Al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia who was arrested for driving in 2011, says that number is far from complete.
“There are thousands. Only the women who posted online, those are the women we know about. I drove without posting videos or announcing about it after my arrest. We have all women in the rural areas, they drive every single day,” she told Business Insider.
One group that never posted online was 47 women who first protested the ban on November 6, 1990. The women, many of them professors, drove for half an hour in Riyadh, before being stopped by police. They, and their husbands, were banned for travelling for a year, some lost their jobs and flyers circulated that branded all those involved as “drivers”.
Each November nearly all the women meet up in shirts that say “Drivers” and eat a cake topped with a car.
“They are my heroes,” says Al-Sharif, author of Daring to Drive. “Growing up I always thought they were the reason I didn’t drive because [people] said terrible things about them. The truth was hidden from us, and was misshaped and changed and twisted to show them as a source of evil.”
In 2011, Al-Sharif launched the Women2Drive campaign, which saw 35 women drive around Riyadh, before some were arrested. The protest came just weeks after Al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself driving. It was filmed by Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a women’s rights campaigner who posted a video of herself driving in 2008 and has been arrested multiple times.
And in 2013, Aziza al-Yousef, a computer science professor at the time, was one of the key organisers of a national road rally. At the same time, more than 100 women posted pictures of themselves driving online. But just a few months later al-Yousef and her passenger Eman Al-Nafjan, a linguistics professor and blogger, were arrested for driving, before being released into their husbands’ custody. The following year driver Loujain Alhathloul, and her supporter journalist Maysaa al-Amoudi, spent 73 days in jail.
And driving at all three protests was psychotherapist and photographer Madeha Al Ajroush. Since 1990, she has been ordered to stop working as a photographer after officials burnt 15 years of her photographs, and lost her job after the 2011 protest. In 2013, she posted a video, under her full name, of herself driving with her daughter.
But Al-Sharif also thinks its important to recognise the men in Saudi Arabia who have helped women drive, by sharing their cars, teaching women to drive or by just choosing to be a passenger.
“My brother gave me his car keys and he was sitting next to me when I was arrested and he was detained too. He was harassed so much and he stood his ground. My dad went to the king and asked for my release.”
“The rain begins with a single drop,” says Al-Sharif. “Never give up.”
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