A Story of Social Movement Courage: Saudi Women Take the Wheel

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June 19, 2011; Source: National Public RadioMaureen Dowd of the New York Times grabbed the line we wanted to use, probably imagined by King Saud as he channeled the Beatles, “Baby, you can’t drive my car.”  But Saudi women are saying to the socially senescent kingdom, yes we can.  The NPQ Newswire last week commented on the plans of Saudi Women for Driving to take to the roads to protest the archaic prohibition — and their organizing for the event using social media and the website Change.org. 

Many of the women were scared.  Manal al-Sharif, a woman who had driven a month ago and posted a video of her exploits, had been hauled off to jail for her temerity. But on Friday, a number of other women drove despite the dangers.  Familiar with driving in Greensboro, N.C., where she is studying for a business degree, Najla Barasain took advantage of being back in Saudi Arabia for her summer break to join her peers and drive — with her less than enthused father in the passenger seat.  

Barasain was one of some 50 women who apparently violated the ban on June 17.  Like Barasain, many were accompanied by their fathers, brothers, and husbands who were taking risks much like the women themselves.  Many men were proud of their women drivers, like Mohammed al-Qahtani who said he was proud of his wife  Maha al-Qahtani for taking to the road.  Like al-Sharif, many of the women courageously posted photos and videos on social media sites. 

Like civil rights protesters, the women were prepared for the worst.  After her initial 45 minute drive, Maha al-Qahtani drove again, without her husband, and was detained by the Saudi police. “I had my stuff with me,” she said. “Like I had my extra clothes, and toothbrush, prayer rug . . . anything I need.”  She was issued a ticket for driving without a license, since women can’t get drivers’ licenses in Saudi Arabia — although she has two international drivers licenses — and then was released.  There is no actual law on the books preventing women from driving, and al-Qahtani says she has no plans to pay the ticket. 

Some people have compared Manal al-Sharif to America’s Rosa Parks.  It is entirely possible that this protest of Saudi women driving to stores or taking pleasure trips without their typical male chauffeurs at the wheel will lead to something more than just a change in Saudi attitudes toward women driving.  Reportedly, at least one member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Alwaleed binTalal, supported the right of women to drive, noting that women can drive even in North Korea.

Why is this important to Nonprofit Quarterly?  Because a protest about driving, like a protest about a seat on a bus, may lead to more fundamental changes for women in this oppressive Saudi society — and the initial efforts to organize the protest of Saudi women drivers occurred through a social movement utilizing nonprofit website that leans heavily on social media.—Rick Cohen


  • Jennifer Y. Levy-Pec

    Thank you for publicizing this issue. It is outrageous that Saudi women lead such restricted lives, and that the U.S. sees Saudi Arabia as an ally without addressing its treatment of women. I will tweet @DocJennifer