The XX Factor

Could the Arab Spring Choke the Saudi Women’s Driving Movement?

In a September 2007 episode of a popular Saudi Arabian television show, a Saudi woman of the future pulls into the driveway of her father’s home. She is in the driver’s seat, and her children are in the back. When her father asks where she’s been, she answers, “The kids were bored, so I took them to the movies.”

Since Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women still don’t have the right to drive (or even ride a bicycle) the scene was controversial and portentous , as the New York Times reported at the time.

That nebulous, futuristic day may have finally arrived. Tomorrow, hundreds of Saudi Arabian women galvanized by the Arab Spring will take to the streets-in cars-to protest the injustice. Their activism isn’t novel: A group of 47 Saudi women drove through Riyadh to protest the law in 1990, and in May, Saudi computer technician Manal al-Sharif was arrested and jailed for nine days when she posted a video of herself driving a black S.U.V. These protests, however, are likely be more forceful than either of.those earlier attempts, in part because of the organizational power of Twitter and Facebook .

Women’s rights leaders are hopeful that Friday’s protest will pressure the government to consider lifting the ban on driving. But that excitement may be premature-ironically, the forces of change that have emboldened these activists may also defeat them, says Sanja Kelly, a senior researcher at the human rights NGO Freedom House who helped conduct a 2009 study called “Gaining Ground: Women’s Rights in the Arab Gulf.” In order for the movement to be successful, Kelly says, at least a few members of the Saudi royal family need to take the side of the women’s protestors. But even though Saudi’s King Abdullah is more sympathetic to the women’s rights movement than some leaders have been in the past, the royal family isn’t likely to throw its weight behind the driving protestors on Friday. That’s because the royal family doesn’t want to upset the Saudi religious establishment, or the ulama , which sees women’s progress as a threat to the foundation of the Saudi political order. The royal family views the ulama as a central ally in maintaining the country’s political status quo during this time of regional upheaval; as such, they’re loath to do anything to disturb that relationship. And since the highly religious general population is more likely to accept a new law if it’s sanctioned by the ulama, rather than just the ruling family, the clerics’ approval is crucial.

“Under other circumstances, it’s more likely that the government would look at these protests with a more favorable light,” Kelly says. “Now [in light of the Arab Spring], with their concern for self-preservation, they don’t want to upset the religious establishment.”

It’s harder to achieve political reform in the Gulf than it is in, say, Egypt, because of the region’s lack of civil society organizations and NGOs. The arduous process to get an organization approved, Kelly says, is prohibitive, and the government denies many NGO requests.

Perhaps as a result, there isn’t much of a precedent for successful women’s protests in the Gulf. Kuwaiti women did gain the right to vote in 2005 after years of protests and campaigning. Bahraini women rallied for the codification of the personal status law (to force judges to make decisions on marriage, divorce, and child custody based on written law, rather than on personal interpretations of the shari’a), but they only achieved a semi-victory-while the country did pass the law in 2009, it’s only applicable to the minority Sunni Muslim population.

Saudi women aren’t delusional They know that the entrenched social code of their country won’t change in a day. But regardless of how long they’ll stay in the driver’s seat on Friday (before being arrested), they’ll have shown the world that they know how to take the wheel.