Image courtesy of Oct26driving.com
By Jeya Lorenz and Madeleine Bair
“Ms. Azwah goes out in a car with her mother, one afternoon in Riyadh.” It’s an appropriately mundane title for a one-minute video following a woman driving to pick her children up from school. Normalcy is part of the point of the video, by women’s rights activist Eman al-Nafjan, for it highlights the absurdity of the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. By not only driving, but giving al-Nafjan consent to film her doing so, Ms. Azwah is defiantly resisting the restriction on women’s rights for one of the most basic and essential tasks of life—getting around.
Behind the Camera
Ms. Azwah is not the only woman driving in Saudi Arabia, and Eman al-Nafjan is not the only one filming them. Two years ago, the activist Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself behind the wheel. Many other women have since joined a movement to change attitudes by way of YouTube, Twitter, and conventional protests. Their audacity has attracted the attention of law enforcement—and both al-Sharif and al-Nafjan have been detained by the police—but it has also garnered them supporters in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Al-Nafjan’s videos of women driving have received upwards of 1.5 million views, and she has a Twitter following 35,000 strong. She is using her online communication platforms to organize a day of action on October 26 to demand the women’s right to be allowed to drive.
Human Rights Context
There is no law in Saudi Arabia explicitly banning women from driving, but the police and judiciary have long enforced a de facto ban, citing conservative Islamic moral codes. Under such policies, women must seek approval from men for many essential activities, like traveling, getting a job, and opening a bank account. In Manal al-Sharif’s video of herself driving, she articulates the layers of injustice implicated in the ban, including the indignity of having to depend on others to get around, the cost of paying for a taxi or chauffeur, and the risk that all of this leaves women at if she is in danger.
But the activism online and on the highways appears to be making a difference. Earlier this month, a female member of the influential government advisory council proposed a lifting of the ban on women’s driving.