Saudi Women Describe How It Feels to Finally Win the Right to Drive

In the aftermath of Saudi Arabia's historic announcement that women will be allowed to drive starting next year, Broadly spoke to three Saudi women about the long-awaited victory.

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Sep 27 2017, 9:02pm

Image courtesy of Samia El-Moslimany

In an historic royal decree on Tuesday, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) announced that women will be allowed to drive beginning in June of 2018. The news—which put an end to a nearly 40-year-long unofficial ban on women driving—has understandably received a lot of attention. Due in large part to the Iranian Revolution, which greatly influenced much of the Middle East, Saudi women have had to rely on male chauffeurs and guardians for transportation since 1979.

Since then, groups of Saudi women across generations have been involved in forms of protest against the ban. Most notable was a 1990 demonstration involving 47 women who drove through the streets of Riyadh defying Saudi law. This week, Saudi women—some who've never lived in a KSA where women could drive, and some who can recall a time when they were allowed behind the wheel like activist Aziza al-Yousaf—are celebrating a long-awaited victory.

Samia El-Moslimany, a 54 year-old Saudi-American woman who grew up between the US, KSA, and Kuwait, was detained in Saudi Arabia just four years ago for driving. On October 26, 2013, El-Moslimany and over 60 other women got behind the wheel and drove through the streets of Saudi Arabia in an act of defiance. She and a woman named Nahid Batarfi were the only two people detained for being female and driving during the protest.

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"I'm happy, it's an achievement, it's a step," El-Moslimany told Broadly. "But I guess the euphoria didn't come as soon as I heard it. The euphoria has come as I've started to digest it and think about all the different people that have sacrificed and participated and lost greatly because they stood for this."

El-Moslimany said that the latest ruling allowing women to drive has been a long time coming. "When I first moved back to Saudi Arabia at 20, everyone said that within five years women would be driving," she said. "That would've been 1990."

Christina Frasi Zahid, who lived in Saudi Arabia from 1966 until her husband passed away in 2001, can remember a time when driving in Saudi Arabia as a woman was no big deal. "I remember driving in the sixties and seventies without a problem," she said. "It wasn't a question of whether women were allowed to drive. When necessary, we just did, like coming home from parties or driving back from the beach."

"Today our country took a stand for us."

While many Saudi women and much of the world consider the new law a step in the right direction, El-Moslimany is sure that there are still "a lot of women who think that it's not a good thing." But she added that because the ruling came with the weight of a royal decree (a very respected document in Saudi society), perhaps reluctant Saudis will be more inclined to come around to the idea of women driving. "Once there's a royal decree, it's completely acceptable for you to now support [women driving]. In a way it becomes unacceptable to be against it," she explained.

This news has also made waves in the US, where reactions range from genuine enthusiasm to sarcasm. Hillary Clinton tweeted, "It's about time. Ladies, start your engines!" Comedian Chelsea Handler suggested that women now "drive the fuck out of there," but Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota offered more sobering comments: "The most oppressive country finally waking up to the reality that women don't need to be babysat, smh," she tweeted. Others have taken the time to make distasteful jokes about women being bad drivers or tweet photos of cars covered in cloth mimicking a niqab.

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These more condescending reactions, however, aren't surprising to El-Moslimany, who believes that there is far more fiction than fact in the narrative surrounding "oppressed" Saudi women. "There are lots of issues and lots of unfair practices and rules," she explained, "but there are parts of Saudi Arabia that are actually better than our Western counterparts." She noted that Saudi Arabia's parliament equivalent, the Shura Council, has a 20 percent quota for women out of its 150 members—which is more female representation than there is in U.S. Congress.

Dr. Modia Batterjee, a Saudi woman whose work focuses on advocacy and support in the international health community, told Broadly she is "overwhelmed with joy" over the latest royal decree.

"The first thought that came to my mind was to raise my head with pride against all the [foreign] drivers who had worked for me and expressed discrimination against me as a woman," Batterjee said. "These workers felt that I, a Saudi woman, was beneath them only because I wasn't allowed to drive in my country and they were. Today that has changed, today our country took a stand for us."