It was in the thick of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Manal al-Sharif first had herself recorded driving in Saudi Arabia. “You can have a PhD here and still not know how to drive,” says Sharif during an eight-minute video about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban.
She recalls when she hired a driver, despite her international driver’s license. A week after he started to work for her family, he dented her car. Shortly after that, he began to harass her.
“They say you are a queen – you are a queen. You are a jewel,” she says, echoing language used by the kingdom’s conservatives in support of the ban. “It’s humiliating – yes, it’s humiliating … and not everyone can afford to hire a driver.”
She uploaded the video of herself driving – seemingly unnoticed – through the streets of Saudi Arabia’s Khobar, and was subsequently jailed for nine days. Months later, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Sharif said she was determined to lay the “foundations” of change.
“The previous generation couldn’t change our present, so we decided to change the next generation’s future and that happens now. If that doesn’t happen in our age, at least this movement will cast the foundation for those generations to come,” she said in the 2012 interview.
She could not have known that change would come in her lifetime, expedited by the rapid rise of a young, ambitious prince determined to modernize the ultraconservative kingdom. But she and some of her fellow activists say they hoped that it would have played out differently.
For them, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has carried the mantle of their causes while stamping out the activists, erasing decades of protest from Saudi history.
On June 24, Saudi Arabia will no longer be the only country in the world to bar women from driving. For the first time ever, women will legally get behind the wheel in the kingdom. A staple of the Crown Prince’s modernization campaign, the lifting of the driving ban comes 28 years after Saudi women first took to the streets of Riyadh to protest for the right to drive.
Decades of protest
Last month, Saudi security forces arrested at least 12 activists, according to rights groups, many of them prominent advocates for lifting the ban. They were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities,” according to a statement on Saudi Arabia’s official news agency. Government-aligned newspapers said they were faced with counterterror charges punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Four were later released.
Manal al-Sharif, who was out of the country, wasn’t among those arrested but she said the arrests marked a return to a “climate of fear” in Saudi Arabia. The government’s defenders said the move was necessary to quell conservative dissent on June 24. Analysts said the arrests were an attempt to deprive the activists of credit for the lifting of the ban.
“The arrests of women in connection with this coming step forward would seem designed to deny those women the credit for having pushed for those reforms and for it being possible for Prince Mohammed and those around him to say, ‘This is our gift. This is the men who have given this to women,’” said British historian Robert Lacey, the author of “Inside the Kingdom.”
“Even as women are being given the right to drive, which they should have had years ago, women are being locked up,” Lacey added.
The first demonstrations for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia began in earnest after the Gulf War. Female American soldiers, deployed to the kingdom during Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, were driving through military bases, exciting the imaginations of Saudi women.
In November 1990, 47 Saudi women drove through the streets of Riyadh in a motorcade protest. They were all arrested, and the country’s highest religious body issued an edict banning female driving, adding what was a customary ban to the legal code.
Reports at the time described the women, nearly completely veiled except for their eyes, getting into 15 cars and driving through the capital. They had all driven before but didn’t know how to operate their own cars.
The decades that followed the Riyadh protest were peppered with movements to lift the ban, but they really came to a head around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011. A social-media campaign called Women2Drive culminated in Manal al-Sharif’s drive in Khobar. Some years later, other activists emerged at the forefront of the movement.
Loujain al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days in 2014 after trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. Aziza al-Yousef, who is 70 and one of the country’s earliest activists, and Eman al-Nafjan, a well-known blogger, drove in Riyadh in 2013 as part of a protest that attracted international attention. They were all arrested in the recent sweep that targeted women’s rights groups, of which Saudi authorities had long been relatively tolerant.
‘Lip service’ to Saudi conservatives
Before bin Salman’s ascent to power in recent years, Saudi Arabia’s largely fundamentalist clergy wielded considerable influence. The arrest of some prominent religious figures in recent months, in addition to a series of moves that consolidated the Crown Prince’s grip on decision-making, helped to clip the clerics’ power.
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia opened its first cinema in decades and loosened several morality laws that discriminate against women, including its notorious rules requiring that women receive a male guardian’s permission to travel, receive an education and sometimes work and receive health care.
“Saudi Arabia was a car driving at 30 kph and the drivers were elderly monarchs who were very cautious and avoided risk. Saudi Arabia today is driving at 100 kph with Mohammed bin Salman in the driver’s seat. And he’s willing to take more risk,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation.
He said the activists’ arrests were aimed at achieving a “balancing act” with the kingdom’s conservatives.
“If there are activists on the women’s section, there will be activists on the Islamists section and then they’ll say, ‘Why are you arresting clerics when these girls are doing X, Y, Z? Is it just because the Americans like them and they’re being celebrated in the West?’” said Shihabi.
The Crown Prince, activists and analysts argue, has made no secret that reforms will continue to be dictated exclusively from above, dividing local and international opinion alike.
A longtime female activist who declined to be identified for security reasons said the arrests have caused a rift in Saudi society, calling the sweep “unprecedented and quite vicious.”
“When we first heard of all the changes by MBS, I think we were all enthusiastic and happy because, obviously, these were steps in the right direction,” said author Robert Lacey, referring to the Crown Prince by his initials.
“While he offers these changes – which are admittedly bigger than cosmetic and will change the nature of society and improve many people’s lives including women’s lives – everybody in Saudi Arabia is being treated as a child with the idea that the house of Saud will rule absolutely forever,” he added.
Meanwhile, those women’s rights activists who heralded change have been asked by authorities not to speak to the media and many have closed their social-media accounts, according to multiple activists. Those arrested, branded “traitors” by state-aligned media, are ostracized by Saudi society even as it treads into modernity.
“We are back to square one,” Manal al-Sharif told CNN shortly after the activists’ arrests were announced.
“This is really, really shocking. I had much hope for the country,” Sharif said. She said she had canceled an upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia out of fear for her safety.