The new suffragettes: Wajeha al-Huwaidar - A driving force on the long road towards equality

In Saudi Arabia, the right to drive has become a symbol of a wider fight for women’s freedom, a leading campaigner tells Catrina Stewart

When Saudi activist Wajeha al-Huwaidar defied a ban on women drivers to get behind the wheel of a car in 2008, she was sure it was only a matter of time before women would be allowed to drive – a right that would, she was convinced, transform their lives.

“If you give a woman a right to move, you give her the right to find a job, to be independent,” the 52-year-old activist says by phone from her home in Saudi Arabia. “I thought it would take us two or three years to be allowed to drive, but my calculations were wrong.”

Hopes that the Arab Spring might bring more freedom for Saudi Arabia’s women have proved ill-founded. Women are still forbidden to drive. Nor are they allowed to mix freely with men. They require permission from a male guardian to travel, and they must cover up in public.

“The Arab Spring was a curse for us,” says al-Huwaidar. “The government became more aggressive, more controlling.” Female activists who had been outspoken before 2011 were cowed as the state started to put pressure on them, she says.

This was an unexpected setback. Generally, since his coronation in 2005, the ageing King Abdullah had positioned himself as a reformer and supporter of women’s rights. He has taken steps that, in a theocratic state such as Saudi, represent a significant shift.  For instance, in 2011, women were for the first time allowed to sit on the Shura Council, the consultative assembly of lawmakers appointed by the king, though what real power they have is a matter for debate. The kingdom sent female competitors to the London Olympics last year for the first time. And in 2015 women will be allowed to contest and vote in municipal elections.

In other spheres, notably the home, women remain disenfranchised. “The reality is that if you live in a close-minded family, you will suffer, and nobody will hear you. That’s just your fate,” says  al-Huwaidar. “Saudi men control their women. They are in charge of everything in their lives, and the law is with them.”

As a young woman,  al-Huwaidar enjoyed a level of freedom denied to Saudi women today. But after the overthrow of the Shah in Iran by fundamentalists in 1979 and the deadly attack the same year by militant Islamists on the Grand Mosque in Saudi’s holy city of Mecca, the House of Saud embarked on a policy of appeasement towards clerics which gave the latter virtually unchecked control over society.

In the past decade,  al-Huwaidar has emerged as perhaps the most outspoken face of women’s rights in Saudi, challenging the guardianship law, domestic violence  and child marriage. Yet some Saudi women see her confrontational campaigns as detrimental to their cause, while others resist change altogether.

Al-Huwaidar recalls: “One well-educated woman told me, ‘I don’t want women to drive because that means my husband will see women on the road, and maybe they will start something. You should think of protecting families, not women drivers.’ If we can change women, we can change men.”

Whether al-Huwaidar will be the one to lead that change remains to be seen. Since she filmed Manal al-Sharif, a young Saudi woman, driving a car in 2011, she has come under renewed pressure from the authorities, and has reined in her activism.

But change, she insists, is unstoppable. “We’re not going to be the country with oil in 10 years. We have to change,” she says. “It is not a choice.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003