October could be an important month for women in Saudi Arabia. Utilizing Twitter as a means to rally supporters, a new campaign is challenging the informal ban on women as drivers.
The campaign built momentum from a tweet by activist Eman al-Nafjan, who wrote, “It's official! Saudi women will express how they feel about the driving ban on Oct 26th.” Al-Nafjan told the BBC that she is hoping both men and women will take to the road on that day to show their support for women drivers. The campaign has already attracted over 11,000 signatures in support.
The campaign – whose goal is to get the government to clearly state that women can drive and provide them with means to obtain licenses – has garnered support from a wide array of Saudis, including women’s right activist Hatoon al-Fassi and novelist Badria al-Bishar.
At present, women who drive are subject to arrest or even job loss, in spite of the fact that, as the campaign’s Mission states, “Islam and the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia both ensure that all, regardless of gender, have the right to freedom of movement. King Abdullah has also stated that the ban is only societal.”
There are echoes of the 1990 attempt to get women behind the wheel by a group of Saudi women who drove their cars in a convoy around the capital Riyadh. That demonstration ended with little progress and harsh consequences for those involved, including foreign travel bans for both the drivers and their husbands, and the firing of any participant who worked a government job.
There is hope that this time around will be different. Beyond signs that Saudi officials could be softening on women driving, there are multiple factors that the Oct. 26 campaign has in its favor that the 1990 movement did not. The 1990 movement happened on the cusp of the first Gulf War, a time when Saudis were particularly sensitive to any social change that might be viewed as Western because of newly stationed U.S. soldiers in the country. Furthermore, with the help of social media, the Oct. 26 campaign is hoping to galvanize the country and get women to take to the streets en masse in their vehicles.
Until Oct. 26 arrives, the group will have to battle rumors intended to discourage activists, obstructions to the website, and threats from traditionalists who support the ban.
Joseph Ferrell is a writer based in New York City.