Published October 29, 2013
In the United States, a DWI can get you thrown in jail. In Saudi Arabia, a DWF – driving while female – can earn you the same fate.
That’s right: women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Not allowed to drive their kids to school. Not allowed to drive a child to the ER even in cases of life or death.
Not allowed to drive. Period.
There’s no actual law against women driving, but they are not allowed to get a driver’s license, and are frequently arrested, fired from jobs and otherwise punished if they do drive.
But some brave women are standing up (or, more accurately, sitting down) for what they see as a basic right. Despite a huge police presence this weekend on the streets of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and despite threats from hardline clerics and government officials, dozens of women got behind the wheel and defiantly drove Saturday. Many of them posted the videos to YouTube as part of what has become a huge social media campaign. And they say they’ll do it again and again until Saudi society changes.
I spoke to one of these women. She tweets under the name @the_mufti, but asked not to be identified for fear of arrest or other reprisals. I asked her about the claim by some in Saudi society that the campaign is part of a conspiracy to “westernize” the country.
“They always say that. Anything they don’t like, they put this label on it: ‘It’s from outside, it’s from the west,' she told me. “Anything, every single thing that happens they don’t like, they would say that.”
This woman also told me that she often drives in disguise to avoid being arrested, dressing as a young boy.
“I drive not in a girl’s look,” she said. “I look like a boy, and I go out like a boy with a boy haircut, so they don’t catch me as a girl and make me go to jail or whatever.”
She said she had been stopped while in her disguise but never punished.
“The police was a little bit mad, (asking) ‘where’s your parents, why did you steal your parents’ car?’ And I said I just want to go to the supermarket to take drinks and stuff for the house, groceries and I’m going back home and won’t do it again. He let me go.”
In other words, it’s OK for an underage boy to drive a car, but not an adult woman.
The women drivers have received support from some men in Saudi society. The comedian Hisham Fageeh satirized the campaign’s opponents in a video that has already been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube. In it, Fageeh sings a song titled “No Woman, No Drive,” to the tune of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Among Fageeh’s lyrics: “I remember when you used to sit in the family car, but back seat … In this bright future, you can’t forget your past, so put your car key away.”
The woman driver to whom I spoke has no intention of putting her car key away. And she’s confident the Saudi authorities will ultimately have to let the women take the wheel.
“If we fight more with this campaign, I think with time they will,” she said. “Maybe not in the nearest future, maybe in 2014. I hope.”