Driving in Saudi Arabia as a Woman

Though not officially illegal, women aren't allowed behind the wheel. A handful of protesters are trying to change that.

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Associated Press

Since October 26 of last year, dozens of Saudi women have taken the wheel, defying the ban on female drivers. It's a movement that, while modest in size, garnered new attention this weekend when Barack Obama came to visit.

There's no official law in Saudi Arabia that bans women from driving. But its Interior Ministry won't issue licenses to women. When pulled over, women have to sign a pledge saying that they won't drive again. A second violation means signing another pledge and waiting for a male relative pick them up. Whoever picks them up has to also sign a pledge saying they won't let the women drive.

The ban stems from the ruling family's Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam that requires women to get permission from a male guardian not only to drive but get married, travel, work, and go to school. 

A note placed by an unknown person on female driver Azza Al Shmasani's car, is pictured in Saudi Arabia June 22, 2011. (REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed)
During last year's first organized defiance, 16 women were stopped by police. That's an improvement from the first protest in 1990 when, according to the Associated Press, 50 women were arrested, jailed, had their passports confiscated, and were fired from their jobs. A 2011 protest had 40 participants, one of whom was arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes.
 

The protests have continued each month since October and some women are noticing a culture change. Police seem less willing to crackdown on those who defy the ban. And while Obama did not take up Amnesty International's suggestion to hire a woman chauffeur for his visit, one of the protestors, Naseema al-Sada, tells AP that more people around the country seem to be warming up to their cause.

As part of the movement, many of these women post their driving experiences online. Evident in the hand-waving and thumbs-up gestures from passing vehicles in videos like the one below, the reactions are often far from hostile:

Top image: Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

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