In Saudi Arabia, Winning the Right to Drive Is Bittersweet

Women's driving rights are long overdue in the KSA, but as the activists who successfully fought for them are detained, it's hard for women's rights advocates to celebrate.

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Jun 23 2018, 2:00pm

Esraa Albuti, one of the first Saudi women to be issued a driver's license after the announcement of the driving ban lift, holds up her new license. Photo by the Center for International Communication, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“The last time I drove was in 2014,” Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef told me when we last spoke two years ago. “I drove and I got detained, and I signed a consent [form] that I will not drive until they allow it in Saudi Arabia.”

Come this weekend, that day will finally be here, but al-Yousef won’t be driving. She won’t even be able to witness the historic day as the KSA becomes the last country in the world to allow women to drive. Since May, al-Yousef and over a dozen other prominent Saudi women’s rights activists, like Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, have been detained and labeled “traitors” by pro-government media outlets.

The detained activists face up to 20 years in jail, and the majority of them will soon be tried in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court for committing the following charges:

  • Cooperating with entities hostile to the Kingdom
  • Recruiting persons in a sensitive government agency to obtain confidential information to harm the interests of the Kingdom
  • Providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad
A woman uses a driving simulator at an event held in Riyadh on Thursday night. Photo by the Center for International Communication, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

For those who value women’s rights both inside and outside the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the driving ban is bittersweet. On one hand, it’s a giant victory for Saudi women and activists who’ve fought for the right to drive despite the risks of doing so in a nation under an absolute monarchy. On the other hand, the subsequent detainment of the very activists that fought for the right to drive, combined with the prince’s motives—which many believe are rooted in economics and public relations—doesn’t lend itself to the beginning of an era of women’s liberation in the KSA.

"I'm very concerned about what's happening right now,” says Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has studied women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for the past ten years. “What's happening with the driving ban should've been the signaling of a brighter future: that women will be able to get behind the wheels of their cars and start to drive themselves towards freedom; that they could lead the way in championing further reforms.”

"I'm very concerned about what's happening right now."

Instead, Begum believes that the arrests are being used as a warning to other activists and citizens to be complicit or face detention. “By arresting the key, most prominent women's rights defenders in the country and silencing all others, the authorities have made it clear that they don't want to hear about such calls for reform, that you may be getting behind the wheel, but you have no freedom to express any further reforms or calls for freedom. We should've been celebrating this moment, but we're very limited in what we can hope for the future."

These warnings have, in part, been effective. Manal al-Sharif, the author of Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman's Awakening and one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known activists, had planned to return to Saudi Arabia from her new home in Australia this month to celebrate the new ruling and drive legally in her home country for the first time. In the past, she has driven in protest of the ban and consequently been arrested and jailed. In light of the recent detention of Saudi women’s rights activists, three of which are her friends, al-Sharif knows it’s not safe to go back home at this time. “Right now, I am watching with so much heartache as my hopes and dreams vanish into thin air,” she wrote in the Washington Post last month.

The fact that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has decided to detain these activists now as he is congratulated on the world stage for the progress these women have been fighting for is puzzling at best. While the prince shakes hands with Tim Cooke and receives congratulations from the President of the United States, those familiar with the history of the right to drive in the KSA hope that people give credit where it is due: to the women now detained, not the prince.

“The Saudi authorities shouldn’t be locking [women’s rights activists] up, they should be grateful to them for having helped bring about these reforms,” says Begum.

“It is thanks to the tireless efforts of women who have spoken up for a fairer society that women will be driving,” al-Sharif reminds us. “The activists were arrested despite their love for Saudi Arabia—for in an absolute monarchy, dissidents are the true patriots.”