The long campaign to end ban on Saudi women drivers

Three activists filming themselves defying the driving ban.
Three activists filming themselves defying the driving ban.


King Salman of Saudi Arabia signed a decree allowing women in the kingdom to drive — an astonishing volte-face from the ultra-conservative country that had been the last country in the world to have such an arcane rule in place. Women have been fighting against the ban for years, and it marks a huge victory for the 108 "Saudi Women Heroes" who have been punished over the years for their brave campaigns against the ban.

1990: 47 Saudi women take to the wheel

The driving ban goes back to 1957, but it wasn't until 1990 that women collectively campaigned against it. On November 6 1990, 47 women drove in Riyadh, the capital of the kingdom. They were arrested, detained for a day, and had their passports confiscated. After the protest, several of them lost their jobs.

2008: Wajeha al-Huwaider films herself driving

Seventeen years later, in September 2007, the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, co-founded by Saudi writer Wajeha al-Huwaider, sent a petition signed by 1,100 people to King Abdallah, asking for an end to the ban.

On March 7 2008, the day before International Women's Day, Wajeha al-Huwaider made a risky move: she published a video on the YouTube account "Yes2womendriving" showing herself driving. She speaks directly to King Abdallah and to the minister of the interior. She asks them to permit women who have got their driving license abroad to drive, and to help others to get a driving license too. The video was splashed over international media, making al-Huwaider an important figure in the fight for the right of women to drive.

2011: Women2Drive, a Facebook campaign

In 2011, a number of Saudi women, including the IT security engineer Manal al-Sharif, launched a Facebook campaign called "Women2Drive", to encourage women who already have a driving license to take to the wheel and defy the ban.

In May of that year, Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed al-Sharif driving through the streets of Khobar. In the video, al-Sharif, who learnt to drive in the United States, comes out with a spiel in favour of women driving: the cost of having a private chauffeur all the time, the impossibility of finding a taxi at certain times of the day, the difficulty of always having to depend on men to go anywhere...

After the video was posted to YouTube and seen more than 700,000 times in one day, al-Sharif was arrested and detained for 10 days. There was an international outcry and after her father went to formally apologise to King Abdallah, she was freed.

In 2013, she was invited to talk about her experience in English at a TED conference. In June 2017, she published a memoir in English under the title "Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. She is one of the symbolic faces of the cause.

2013: An attempt to recreate 1990… And a parody

Two years later, another campaign calling on women to defy the ban chose October 26, 2013 as the date for the protest. The demonstration was accompanied by a petition, which was signed by more than 15,000 people online. But on the day itself, a large number of activists gave in, faced with pressure and threats from the minister of the interior who explicitly warned, "Women are forbidden to drive and the law will apply to whomever contravenes the ban or supports their defiance."

On October 26, Saudi comedian Hisham Fagui published a parody of the famous Bob Marley song 'No Woman No Cry' - calling it 'No Woman No Drive', to make fun of the arguments of those who support the ban. The video earned nearly 3 million views in only three days.

2014: A woman put in prison for driving 

Despite the threats, warnings, arrests and detention, other campaigners have dared to film themselves driving. Loujain al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days after she filmed herself trying to enter Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates in a car on November 30, 2014.

Is the end approaching for the guardianship system?

In April 2016, Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane, known as 'MBS', the heir to the throne and the face of the kingdom, declared that Saudis were not ready to let women drive.

But as part of his ambitious reform programme "Vision 2030", Riyad seems to be relaxing some of its restrictions, one of which was the decision to allow women to drive.

For campaigners for women's rights in the country, the next step is to put an end to the guardianship system, which forces women to have permission from a male member of their family - usually the father, husband, or brother - to study, travel, or do any number of activities. Activists are already drawing attention to this next battle on social media.