Muslim Women Get Behind Wheel to Protest Saudi Arabian Driving Ban

| by Muslim Matters

© on May 23, 2011. All rights reserved. Please see legal & other disclaimers here <>.

I learned how to drive at the age of 13, in a golden Toyota Corolla on the dusty roads of Khartoum.  It was empowering,  when my dad gave me keys the of the tiny, bright red Suzuki FX, a car I had to share with my sister, the deal was I was to drop my brothers and sisters off at school on the way to Kinniard. We had a driver for my mom who never drove but my father wanted his daughters to be self-reliant. He showed me how to fix a flat and pointed out every trusted auto mechanic on the route back and forth from school. Have driven in the crazy streets of Lahore, Dubai, New York, Los Angeles amongst other places. I am a ‘conservative’ Muslim woman; I drive my children to Quran class, to school, to the grocery store, to visit elders in the community, to the masjid school where I teach.  Always took it for granted until was struck with severe vertigo and was at the mercy of others to chauffeur me around for a few weeks. Take away the ability to move from a human being and you have put her or him in a virtual prison. Saudi Arabian women have been in this virtual prison for years. They are not allowed to drive. Every Muslim country in the world lets women drive, except Saudi Arabia. Why? No one except the Saudi Arabian government knows. There is no Islamic reasoning for it. Since there were no ‘cars’ 1400 years ago, Muslim scholars turn to permissibility of an action by looking at the closest general mode. Here it is transportation. Women used horses and camels to travel during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). There is stories of the Prophet’s wives, daughters and sahabiyaat riding horses. Most Saudis, themselves, don’t claim the ban to be Islamic.


The debate to allow women to drive cars has been ebbing and flowing in the oil-rich conservative kingdom for many years. ( The religious authorities have always viewed this license, if granted, as something that will ruin women and the whole of society. There are some Saudi scholars for example, Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaikan – one of Saudi Arabia’s senior religious figures and another well-known cleric, Mohsin Awaji that say that Islamic law does not prevent women driving. Everything depends, they say, on the context. There are road safety issues, steps need to be taken to prevent harassment of women drivers.  Liberals, along with a lot of Saudi women, say it is a basic right that women should naturally have, especially those who cannot afford to employ a driver. Why it is a divide amongst liberals and religious authorities.? This is a woman’s issue, one that affects woman, let them decide. Driving is not a “right”, it is a privilege that should be  earned by proving that you can drive safely and revoked if misused ie. drinking while driving, speeding, texting, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

But wait it is a male issue too, Saudi men spent countless hours chaffeuring their female relatives back and forth from doctor’s appointments,  to school, to college, to hairdressers to the mall.

Weddings are a nightmare.


“Usually, I’m too tired” to enjoy the festivities, Auda says, “because I’m preparing the whole day for the wedding. You have to take the dresses from the dry cleaners. You have to get the gifts, pick up the hairdresser for the girls. Drive the hairdresser back.  “Sometimes, for example, there is a hairdresser working at home on five women, and there is another five who want to go to salons. You can imagine the headache. You are tired because you are driving three to four hours before the wedding.”

By limiting this privilege just to men what has Saudi Arabia gained? Women are still allowed to sit in a car often with a non-mahram driver, which if looked at from a deen perspective is worse. This editorial in the Saudi newspaper suggest that the myth of Saudi taxi drivers molest Saudi women is so encompassing that no self respecting Saudi woman will get into a taxi for the fear of losing her reputation. Comments under the editorial further fuel that myth. The editorial does inform the readers that many more Saudi women are working out of necessity but are not able to save any money because they spend it all on hiring private drivers or taxis.

Such views are dysfunctional and display a distrust of both Saudi women and men. Qatar is a conservative Muslim society, so is Kuwait but women drive in both places. Are Qatari or Kuwaiti women any less virtuous than Saudi women? Of course not.

Najla Hariri’s is a mom who has been driving around Jeddah for the past few days taking her children to school. Her feat stormed the Internet, and on Twitter, the long debate continued between those who refused what Najla had done and those who praised her courage and struggle to prove that society is wrong in banning women from driving cars.(

Hariri reacted kindly to the praise she got in comments through her Twitter account saying [ar]:

أعزائي، جعلتم مني رائدة ورمز، أنا لست أي من ذلك، انا أم وجدت نفسها في احتياج لأخذ زمام المبادرة، ففعلت من غير بطولات ولا انجازات

You have made me a leader and an icon, when I am not any of that. I am just a mother who found herself in need to do something, so I did what I’ve done without looking for heroic acts or achievements.

In an interview with Arab News, she ridiculed “the social belief that Saudi women are treated “like queens” as they are driven around by their male relatives or drivers, saying “this is a big lie. We are always under their mercy to give us a lift,” she said.

Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan wrote a comment [ar] on what Mrs Hariri had done, saying:

ما قامت به الأستاذة نجلاء حريري من قيادة سيارتها يوم أمس في جدة وتوصيل أطفالها هو حق حلال ومشروع ومصادرة الحق ظلم

What Mrs Najla Hariri has done driving her car in Jeddah to give a ride to her children is a legitimate [Halal] right and taking this right away is unfair.

Another Saudi tweep, Abdulrahman Kattoa, praised what Najla did, describing [ar] her as another Rosa Park, the African-American civil rights movement activist:

ما يكسر حاجز الخوف إلا الشجعان زي ما كسرت الأمريكية في الباص الاضطهاد العنصري في أمريكا

No one breaks the fear wall except the brave, just the way an American woman broke racist oppression in a bus

Kuwaiti columnist Abdullah Zaman wrote a tweet in English to Mrs Hariri praising her courage:

Najla, I envy you for what you did today. You got the guts to be a symbol of the will in the women’s world.

Saudi political activist Waleed Abu Alkhair pointed out [ar] the importance of what Mrs Hariri had done:

باختصار سياقة نجلاء حريري لسيارتها في وسط جدة ووقت الذروة ولمسافة طويلة دون أي مضايقات يبدد ما يشاع عن مجتمعنا أنه سوف يؤذي المرأة إن ساقت

In short, Najla Hariri driving her car in the middle of Jeddah City during the rush hour for a long distance without getting harassed, should end what has been rumored in the society about women getting hurt if they would drive.

A campaign “Teach me to drive to protect me” is scheduled to start on June 17th- here is their facebook page.  The duplicitoius  part about this farce is that there is nothing in the Saudi traffic laws that prohibits Saudi women from driving-they are just not issued drivers licenses and there is a driving ban.   They can own cars just not drive them. The drama is so ridiculous that the same religious figures who support women’ s rights to drive have to navigate the religious minefield by issuing nonsensical fatwas ie give breast milk to adult male drivers to make them mahram, which is clearly against Islamic law as breast milk is haram after the age of 2. But a right to transport oneself on/in a mode of transport that is not haram, is clear and straightforward, no fatwa can be issued.

The ban on driving was unofficial at first but was introduced as official legislation after 47 Saudi women drove cars through the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in the 1990s in an attempt to challenge authorities.  To get around this issue the women of June 17 are asking all drivers with international drivers licenses to drive. They are also offering driving lessons to women in rural areas.  Manal Al Sharif- one of the organizers of the event was stuck without a ride, unable to get in touch with her maharam, her brother, she is a single mother of a five year old and could not find a taxi at 9 o’ clock at night. She says she was harassed by every car that passed by. She was desperate to get home to her son.

“We want to live as complete citizens, without the humiliation that we are subjected to everyday because we are tied to a driver,” the Facebook message reads. “We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities, we are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”
As I write this: Manal has been arrested by the religious police and is in jail in Khobar. She posted a video on Youtube.

Click here to view the embedded video.

MSNBC describes the video made by al-Sharif and her friend:

Dressed in a headscarf and the all-encompassing black abaya all women must wear in public, al-Sharif said not all Saudi women are “queens” who can afford to hire a driver. She extolled the virtues of driving for women, saying it can save lives, and time, as well as a woman’s dignity. Al-Sharif said she learned how to drive at the age of 30 in New Hampshire.  “We are humiliated sometimes because we can’t find a taxi to take us to work,” she said.

@monakareem Mona Kareem
RT @Safarzo: Manal was arrested not 4 violatin the law but 4 “violating culture.” Ppl, is there ANYTHIN in Saudi thats not against culture.
omar9944 omar johani An unsung hero in Manal’s saga, her bro! Accompanied her when she drove, had his wife babysit Manal’s son. Saudi guys #TakeNote! #FreeManal

The following announcement from the campaign was originally released in Arabic, and can be found here. Translation by Ziad Abu-Rish and Khuloud of

Us women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the ones who will lead this society towards change. While we failed to deliver through our voices, we will not fail to deliver through our actions. We have been silent and under the mercy of our guardian (muhram) or foreign driver for too long. Some of us barely make ends meet and cannot even afford cab fare. Some of us are the heads of households yet have no source of income except for a few hard-earned [Saudi] Riyals that are used to pay drivers. Then there are those of us who do not have a muhram to look after our affairs and are forced to ask strangers for help. We are even deprived of public transportation, our only salvation from being under the mercy of others. We are your daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. We are half of society and give birth to [the other] half, yet we have been made invisible and our demands have been marginalized. We have been deliberately excluded from your plans! Therefore, the time has come to take the initiative. We will deliver a letter of complaint to our father, the King of Humanity and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calling on him to support the Women of June 17.

Not all women in Saudi think this initiative is the solution, one commenter called Fatima at the Jadaliyya website says:

I support an initiative to help Saudi women improve our situations but I think the real problem is not a driving license, it’s the men we agree to marry. A driving license just gives men more excuse to neglect us because we can now do all the shopping and take the children everywhere with us and so on. The men abdicate responsibility. The better fight would be in the process of selecting a husband; select one who supports our independence and will pay for our driver. I don’t see how a license helps women who can’t pay for a taxi. They still won’t be able to buy a car? A chauffeur is something most people of the world covet. So called supporters are working to deprive us of this luxury. Be careful.

To choose to drive or not. This is a privilege that every man or woman should have who can do it safely and responsibly. Praying for my Saudi sisters may Allah give them this freedom and grant them the hikmah to use it for the betterment of their deen and dunya.