The driving ban and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Women and girls face entrenched discrimination in law and practice in Saudi Arabia. The ban on driving is only one example of the many areas of life where women in Saudi Arabia have their human rights denied. Women are still unable to travel, engage in paid work or higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian.

Driving ban and the Women2Drive movement

Women in Saudi Arabia have publicly campaigned to lift the ban on them driving since 1990, when around 40 women drove their cars down a main street in Riyadh, the capital. They were stopped by police and a number of them were suspended from work.

Since then, these protests have been sustained. In 2007, campaigners sent a petition to the late King Abdullah, while the following year campaigner Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed herself driving and posted the video on YouTube to mark International Women's Day. 

Saudi women again used YouTube to post videos of themselves behind the wheel to protest against the ban in 2011. Some were arrested and others were forced to sign pledges to desist from driving. At least one woman was tried and sentenced to 10 lashes.

In 2013, women’s rights activists launched a similar initiative in an attempt to overturn the ban on 26 October 2013. One of the activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, officially announced the launch of the campaign in a video posted online. Soon after the announcement, some of the women activists received repeated threats from the authorities to pressure them to stop the campaign. On 24 October, the Ministry of Interior said that it would respond “firmly and with force” should the campaign take place, and on 25 October, the campaign’s website was hacked.

Despite the threats and the intimidation, scores of women filmed themselves as they drove their cars and posted the videos online. Some were arrested, most of whom were released after a short period of time.

Following last year's royal decree to lift the driving ban, women who had campaigned against the ban reported receiving telephone calls warning them against publicly commenting on the news.  

Crackdown on women’s rights defenders

This latest crackdown on women’s rights activists, which has seen at least five activists detained in the past week, comes despite Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman presenting himself as a 'reformer'.

His international public relations campaign contrasts sharply with an intensifying crackdown on dissenting voices, including those campaigning for equal rights for women.

On 19 May, the Saudi Arabian authorities and government-aligned media launched a public smear campaign to try to discredit five prominent detained women’s rights defenders as “traitors” following their arrest.

Official statements in state media accused the activists and other individuals of forming a “cell” and posing a threat to state security for their “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”.

Persecution of activist Loujain al-Hathloul

The names of the three prominent female and two male human rights defenders have not been publicly announced by state media, but local state-affiliated media outlets revealed their names the following day in a chilling smear campaign, labelling them as "traitors". Among them is Loujain al-Hathloul, the well known campaigner against the ban on women drivers.

Al-Hathloul has been the victim of long-term persecution. She was detained for 73 days after she famously defied the ban by trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates on 30 November 2014. Security officers in al-Batha, a border city in eastern Saudi Arabia, confiscated her passport and forced her to stay overnight in her car.

Al-Hathloul filmed her attempt to cross the border, with a YouTube video of her experiences viewed hundreds of thousands of times. She also documented her experience on Twitter, where her name trended internationally.

She went on to stand for election in November 2015, the first time women were allowed to vote and stand in elections in the country’s consultative Shura Council. Despite being recognized as a candidate, her name was never added to the ballot. She was arrested again in June 2017 and denied access to lawyers and her family. She was eventually released four days later. The conditions of her release remained unknown.

Others imprisoned this month include Iman al-Nafjan, a human rights defender and blogger; Aziza al-Yousef, a fellow campaigner for the right to drive; Dr Ibrahim al-Modeimigh, a lawyer and women's rights advocate and youth activist Mohammad al-Rabea.

The ban on women driving is due to be lifted in June with licences being issued from 24 June. Amnesty International has welcomed the move as a "long overdue small step in the right direction". Amnesty international is also calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against women, including the guardianship system.