Monday, 9 December 2013


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,, 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 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 organizers. “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.

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