“We were chased by all the religious people”


Every year, nearly four dozen Saudi women get together for a reunion. Eighteen years ago, on Nov. 6, 1990, they staged a public protest against their country’s ban on women driving. For half an hour, they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by police.

The women paid heavily for their actions — all the drivers, and their husbands, were barred from foreign travel for a year. Those women who had government jobs were fired. And from hundreds of mosque pulpits, they were denounced by name as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society.

“It was so scary at that time, because we were chased by all the religious people,” al Bakr says. “But then we decided that this is a very historical moment, so as many of us, we should get together and have a picture and just keep it. And we did, actually. We gathered in one of our friend’s house and we took a historical picture, and I’m sure this picture is going to be in some museums somehow.”

Yet opposition to women driving seems to be fraying. A Gallup poll last year found that 55 percent of Saudi men now want to let women drive. A handful of women caught driving this year were only briefly detained, according to press reports, and a university student was called a heroine after she drove her badly burned father to the hospital.

“I think now people are at ease talking about it,” al Mana says. “It’s not like it was 18 years ago — it was taboo.”

Religious people using the state to deny some people a license based on who they are. It’s not news, but it is reality, in more than one place.

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