At the age of 60, Madeha Al Ajroush might be expected to be spending this weekend quietly relaxing with her husband and daughters. Instead she will be out on the roads of Riyadh risking arrest.
In 48 hours she will get behind the wheel of a car, taking part in the third mass protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers.
Mrs Al Ajroush is one of 47 women who staged the kingdom’s first public protest on November 6, 1990, in which women drove in groups around Riyadh before being stopped by the police.
“We all paid heavily for going behind the wheel,” says Mrs Al Ajroush, who was in her thirties with a driving licence from Oklahoma in the United States, where she studied, when she took part in that first protest.
A psychotherapist and photographer, she drove again on June 17, 2011, and once more was detained for more than three hours at the police station. Later she was fired from the NGO where she worked as a consultant. In total, 50 women drove during the 2011 protest, and while the police ignored some of them, others were also detained and fined.
Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and are forced to rely on drivers or male members of the family to take them out. There is nothing in Islamic law, the sharia, against women driving, but religious clerics in Saudi regularly release fatwas and statements against driving. “Fighting for women’s rights has never been easy, whether it is in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world,” Mrs Al Ajroush says.
This weekend’s mass drive by women has already polarised opinions in the kingdom. At one end there is the warning from Sheikh Saleh Al Lohaidan, a Saudi imam, who warned women via an online newspaper, Sabq.org, that what he called “physiological science” showed that driving “automatically affects the ovaries and pushes up the pelvis ... and that is why children born to most women who continuously drive suffer from clinical disorders of varying degrees”.
At the other end, calls for ending the ban have been gaining momentum, with the online petition Oct26driving.com attracting more than 16,000 signatures. The website’s logo of green, yellow and red symbols showing a veiled female behind a steering wheel has been adopted in numerous Facebook and Twitter accounts supporting the movement.
The petition lists a series of demands, with its principal argument being that: “There is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so.” It calls on the government “to provide appropriate means for women seeking the issuance of permits and licences to apply and obtain them”.
The petition was initially blocked in Saudi Arabia, but is now available through mirror sites, according to Eman, one of the organisers. “The petition was a group effort involving by many many Saudis,” she said.
Manual Al Sharif, a women’s rights campaigner who also drove in 2011 is the best-known proponent for women driving after she posted videos of herself behind the wheel on YouTube and Facebook, leading to her arrest and headlines around the world.
She is calling for the protests to become a monthly event. “We will continue to do this every single month, every 26th of the month, we will go down and drive until the first Saudi licence is issued for the first Saudi woman,” she says.
“The government is still ignoring us. They are refusing to give us an explicit decision. If no, say no openly, if yes, then please, let’s end this driving ban.”
Her advice to Saudi women is that “You need to break the fear barrier and go out and drive. Only if we are in the hundreds will we win our right to drive.”
Three female members of the Shoura Consultative Council in Saudi Arabia this month introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving. Councilwoman Latifah Ashaalan announced on Twitter that she, along with her colleagues Haya Al-Manea and Mona Masheet, had recommended giving women the right to drive cars in accordance with sharia and traffic regulations. Other members of the advisory body, however, rejected the move and refused to discuss the issue further. The women are among 30 female members appointed to the previously all-male Shoura Council for the first time earlier this year.
The publicity given to recent protests is in sharp contrast to the first women who drove in Saudi Arabia in 1990. Recalling the protest 23 years ago, Mrs Al Arjoush admits to being “terrified” adding: “We wanted the top people to take notice of our need for change as we couldn’t send a petition and we couldn’t reach the king. So we hit the streets, but in groups for our protection and we chose to do it in the early afternoon, where there is less traffic and our husbands were near by, following us in their cars to keep an eye on us,” she says.
The women had met at a major supermarket and then headed out in groups, where each woman drove with other women in the passenger seats.
She recalls that she stepped into her car, looked at her husband and told him: “Please take care of my two daughters.”
Within half an hour, the police had stopped Mrs Al Ajroush, who had four women in her car. The policeman asked her if she was Kuwaiti, but she said no, Saudi. “He was shocked and asked me if there is some kind of emergency. I said no, we are participating in a peaceful protest against the ban on driving,” she recalls.
A member of the morality police showed up and started hitting the car with his stick.
“We were so scared he would break the windows and hit us,” she says. “Husbands stood in the back and watched, and decided not to intervene as it would get even worse if they did. We could see they were worried sick and feeling helpless.”
After a debate about whether this was a case for the morality police or traffic police, officials decided to turn it into a traffic matter.
Officers drove her car to the police station where the women were detained for 11 hours. “They wouldn’t even let us sign the papers at the police station that stated we would never drive again,” she says.”They let the men in the families do it on our behalf. They treated us as if we didn’t exist.”
As well as losing their jobs, the women were banned from travelling, and found themselves criticised in the Friday sermon that week.
“They launched a very ugly propaganda against us all, to discredit us, and we suffered for a very long time. Our families were upset at us for jeopardising our lives, and theirs,” she says.
Despite it all, Mrs Al Ajroush has not lost hope, and plans to drive again.
“I actually don’t need to drive myself. I am well off and I can afford a driver. I am doing this for all the women who can’t. Who can’t go to school, who can’t go to university, who can’t even go to a grocery store without waiting for some man to take them. Some end up not going to work or getting an education under the excuse that the family can’t afford a driver. That is not fair to the women,” she says.
“Driving is a choice, should not be forced on either the men or the women.”
In fact, Mrs Al Ajroush, who says her husband calls her a “warrior” is already on the road driving. She is not waiting for the 26th.
“There is something different in the air now. Perhaps this time, the ban will finally be lifted.”
Aziza Al Yousef drove in June 2011, and hasn’t stopped since.
“If I need to go somewhere and there is no one to take me, I just hop into my car and drive to where I need to go,” says the 55-year-old Saudi.
She hopes this next wave of public protest against the driving ban against women in Saudi Arabia brings actual results and that the issue is finally put to rest.
“It has been long enough, women should be allowed to drive. My husband doesn’t like to drive, so why should he be forced to drive us when I, instead, love to drive.”
Mrs Al Yousef, a computer-science lecturer, was once stopped by the police.
“He was nice. He didn’t fine me but warned me to be careful,” said the mother of four boys and one girl.
“I can let my boys drive me, but why if I can do it and I am a good driver. I am better than many men on the road.”
While for May Al Sawayan, 32, pushing against the driving ban is a family tradition with her mother (Haya Al Aboudi), her aunt, and her mother in law among the 47 women who drove in 1990 against the ban.
“It is now our turn to push for change. They were courageous and made many sacrifices, now we have to continue that for our sake and the sake of our children, I work hard and why should I waste money on a driver when I can do the driving myself?”
A driver costs between 1,500 and 2000 riyals a month without accommodation.
She came to Abu Dhabi this month to try to get a UAE driving license in time for the protest because she has only an American driving licence, but was unable to because it was the Eid holiday.
“I am still going to drive,” the mother of two says.