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Saudi Women Are Defiant In Their Fight to Be Able to Drive

A 25-year-old activist spent the night in her car after police confiscated her passport for trying to drive across the Saudi Arabia border on Sunday night.

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

One of the women who defied the driving ban during the October 26th 2013 protest

On Sunday night, 25-year-old activist Loujain al-Hathlul was ​banned from entering Saudi Arabia from the UAE. She had her passport confiscated by border police and was forced to ​spend the night in her car. She was arrested yesterday and taken to be interrogated in Hofuf. She ​hasn't tweeted since

Her strident protest is the latest incident in a tide of resistance against the country's treatment of women. There's been a steadily rising outcry from Saudi women, ​desperate to be allowed on the road . Rumblings that some women over 30 ​may be allowed to drive in some circumstances never amounted to anything. And, even though high-profile Saudi celebs such as ​Princess Ameerah – a businesswoman and former wife of a Saudi royal – says it's a ​vital and inevitable change, women can still be punished with up to eight months in prison and ​150 lashes for driving. 

All of which much make al-Hathlul's situation quite terrifying. But in a country where women ​aren't allowed to try on clothes while shopping (the thought of a naked woman behind a curtain is too sexy, apparently), and in which a husband's right to detain and abuse his wife ​trumps her right to seek help, it's not surprising that the Saudi police have acted like tyrants in al-Hathloul's case.

VICE reached out to al-Hathlul for comment last night, but by this time she had been detained. So we asked ​Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher from advocacy group Human Rights Watch, to shed some light on what's going on over there. 

VICE: Hi Adam. is it common for women to be found driving and then stopped, or is it rare to find a woman trying to break the law? Is that sort of rebellious behaviour becoming more common?
​Adam Coogle: A group of Saudi women activists have campaigned since 2011 to promote the right of women to drive using social media. Their primary tactic is to film themselves driving in Saudi Arabia, post the videos to YouTube, and promote the videos using Twitter. They periodically organise mass driving days, encouraging women across the kingdom to get behind the wheel and film themselves. The current incident involving al-Hathlul is just the latest attempt.

Loujain al-Hathlul. Image via Twitter

When was the driving rule introduced?
In 1990. During the Gulf War, Saudi women saw female American soldiers driving on military bases in their country, and organised a protest. Dozens of Saudi women drove the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to protest the restriction. In response, officials arrested them, suspended them from their jobs, and the Grand Mufti – the country's most senior religious authority – immediately declared a fatwa –or religious edict – against women driving, stating that driving would expose women to "temptation" and lead to "social chaos." Then-Minister of Interior Prince Nayef banned women's driving by MOI decree on the basis of the fatwa.

The Shura Council were recommending that Saudi women could drive under certain conditions – what happened with that?
The conditions were that women driving must be over 30, not wearing make-up, and must not be out past 8PM. But in order for this to go into effect it would need to be made into a draft law, passed by the ​Shura Council, then passed by the Saudi cabinet, and then promulgated by the king via royal decree. Until the cabinet approves, nothing will happen.

Broadly speaking, do you think Saudis agree with the ban?
There's no reliable poll, so we can't tell. There are many who support the right of women to drive and many in the conservative religious establishment who oppose it.

Does Twitter activity by the likes of al-Hathlul run the risk of only reaching people outside of Saudi – people who have no ability to change anything?
Not really – the women driving activists are tweeting in both Arabic and English. The Arabic tweets get wide attention inside Saudi Arabia. In 2013, efforts to organise ​a mass driving day on October 26th gained so much attention that over 100 senior clerics to visited the king's palace in advance of that date asking him to stop the women from driving, so from that I assume the campaign has a lot of traction internally.

Naturally this feeds into bigger issues of equality in Saudi Arabia. What other challenges do women face?
Saudi Arabia's discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian – usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals from requiring male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women.

This must go against the ​Arab Charter on Human Rights, though?
Yes, the right to freedom of movement is guaranteed by article 26. Discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited by article three.

Has there been any change or good news at all for Saudi women recently?
There have been slow, marginal women's rights reforms over the last few years, especially in the area of women's employment. Saudi Arabia has largely dropped male guardian permission as a condition for employment and is now actively encouraging women to enter the work force. It has also opened up new professions for women's employment such as becoming a lawyer. The ​first woman newspaper editor was appointed this year, and, in early 2013, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council. Plus, women will be eligible to run and vote in municipal elections ​in late 2015.

So, while change might be happening at glacial speed, women like al-Hathlul are making progress. Even if it is only in first gear. 

​@helennianias

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