Saudi Arabia: Women now allowed to drive, but more reforms must follow

Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive is welcome but must now be followed by more reforms to women’s rights, Amnesty International said today.

This weekend (Sunday 24 June) women will be allowed to drive in the country as the controversial driving ban is lifted.

However, leading women’s rights activists and campaigners against the driving ban - including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef - are among eight activists still being detained in Saudi Arabia for their peaceful human rights work. Some have been detained without charge for more than one month, and may face trial before the counter-terror court and up to 20 years in prison for their activism.

The women’s rights activists detained have campaigned for the right to drive and the end of the repressive male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia for many years.

Under Saudi Arabia’s repressive guardianship system, women and girls face systematic discrimination, both in law and in practice. Women are unable to travel, engage in paid work or higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian. In addition, Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals cannot pass on their nationality to their children, unlike Saudi Arabian men in a similar situation.

“The lifting of the ban is testament to the bravery and determination of the women’s rights activists who have been campaigning on the issue since the 1990s, and the activists following up their ground-breaking work in subsequent campaigns since 2011”, said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Campaigns Director.

“While we welcome the fact that women can finally get behind the wheel, we should not forget that many people are still behind bars for their work in fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

“The lifting of the ban is a long-overdue small step in the right direction, but must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices. It is outrageous that women are still treated like second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia.

The smear campaign that targeted these activists is unprecedented, and proves that any views that do not align with the government’s reform agenda will not be publicly tolerated.
Amnesty International's Samah Hadid

“If Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman truly believes himself to be a reformer, he should free the women’s rights activists, and include activists and civil society members in Saudi Arabia’s reform process.”

Amnesty International is calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against women, including the guardianship system.

Chilling effect of recent smear campaign

The latest crackdown on women’s rights activists 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”.

“The recent crackdown has had an unsettling effect on the already dire situation of freedom of expression, association and assembly in the country. Activists have reported that people are afraid to speak out”, said Samah Hadid.

“The smear campaign that targeted these activists is unprecedented, and proves that any views that do not align with the government’s reform agenda will not be publicly tolerated.

“Crown Prince bin Salman’s crackdown on women’s rights activists and the chilling smear campaign that continues against these women in Saudi Arabia media shows that he is preventing any activist or reformist voices from challenging the government narrative on reforms in the country.

“Saudi Arabia’s allies - in particular the USA, UK and France - must not stay silent in the face of gross and systematic violations of human rights and the repression of human rights activism. The international community must push Saudi Arabian authorities to end their targeted repression of human rights activists in the country.”

Amnesty International has been campaigning for the women’s rights activists detained in the recent crackdown to be freed.

The movement for the right to drive

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 October 2013, women’s rights activists launched another initiative in an attempt to overturn the ban. Soon after the announcement, some of the activists received repeated threats from the authorities to pressure them to stop the campaign and the campaign’s website was hacked. Despite 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 in September 2017, women who had campaigned against the ban reported receiving telephone calls warning them against publicly commenting on the news.  

Women’s rights activists’ quotes

When she announced the launch of the campaign against the driving ban in October 2013, Loujain al-Hathloul said: “We are launching a new campaign for women’s right to drive. If you didn’t get the chance to participate in 1991 or 2011, there is a new campaign opportunity on 26 October 2013. It is unjust for men authorities to stop us, there are no laws or regulations that forbid women from driving.”

Writing for CNN in September 2017, Iman al-Nafjan said: “Now with the driving ban lifted, other issues seem conquerable. The biggest issue at the moment is the guardianship system.”

And in October 2016, Aziza al-Yousef said: “Our freedom of movement is one of our demands in the campaign to end male guardianship.”