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Saudi women drive down memory lane

In an ornate living room, a group of women gathered around coffee and date cakes to celebrate the afternoon 18 years ago when they got into cars and drove the streets of Riyadh, a stunning defiance of Saudi Arabia's ban on female driving.

  • AP
  • Published: 23:21 November 14, 2008
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AP
  • Using a loophole in Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving cars, a Saudi woman drives a dune buggie, in Thumama. Saudi women who made headlines when they broke the ban on driving in 1990 gathered recently to mark the occasion.

Riyadh: In an ornate living room, a group of women gathered around coffee and date cakes to celebrate the afternoon 18 years ago when they got into cars and drove the streets of Riyadh, a stunning defiance of Saudi Arabia's ban on female driving.

They have only one regret: the ban remains.

The protest, which made headlines around the world, cost the 47 female drivers and passengers dearly. They were arrested, lost their jobs for two-and-a-half years, were banned from travel for a year and were condemned by the clergy. To this day, some say they have not been promoted at work because of their protest.

On this night, however, the living room was alive with laughter as a dozen of the women recalled the joy on November 6, 1990.

"We were euphoric," Nora Al Ganem said. "I loved the double takes the men did when they saw us," said Nora Al Sowayan.

The women said the timing of the protest was tied to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the massing of US troops in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi women saw images of female US soldiers driving around in the desert and heard that Kuwaiti women had driven their children to safety across the border.

The women said the presence of international media covering the Iraq-Kuwait developments guaranteed their story would reach the whole world and that any government action would be less harsh than if the journalists were not there.

"At my parents' house on Thursday, my aunt was cursing the women who drove," said Al Ganem, an educator. "That was before the names were released. It was quite funny."

But amid the memories and laughter, there was also the sobering reality that over the past 18 years, little progress has been made toward reversing the driving ban and addressing other women's rights issues there.

On that day in 1990, the 47 women met at a mall parking lot. Fifteen of them - those with international driving licences - dismissed their drivers and got behind the wheel as the other women piled into the cars. "My driver was afraid he would lose his job," said Fowziya Al Bikr, an education professor.

They drove around for over an hour before being stopped by police. The reaction was phenomenal. Clergymen denounced the action as criminal.

But there wasn't only denunciation. Some Saudis wrote poems praising the drivers. And, remarkably for a male-dominated society, the women's husbands, fathers and brothers stood by them and not one of them was divorced because of their actions.

Al Sowayan said even though women are still unable to drive, "our action has galvanised society". "I have no regrets," said Al Sowayan, a sociologist.

"The new generation should have their chance even if it may mean ruining her chance to get a good husband," joked Al Bikr.

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