Amid the tumult of the Middle East’s so-called Arab Spring, Saudi women have been quietly agitating for something most Westerners older than sixteen take for granted: the right to drive. Several women, organizing via Facebook and Twitter, got behind the wheel last June in a public protest. A few were arrested and otherwise harassed, but the campaign continues on the Internet and has recently included calls for automakers — namely Subaru — to stop selling cars in a country where not all are allowed to drive them.
We spoke on the phone with Aziza al-Yousef, a fifty-two-year-old college professor who has both an international license and an (expired) American license but drove her Toyota Avalon in Saudi Arabia for the first time this summer, and to her thirty-year-old daughter Sara al-Haidar, who rode in the passenger’s seat with a camera.
How do Saudi women normally get around without a license?
al-Haidar: You either have to beg a male relative — your father, your brother, your husband — to take you somewhere. If you don’t want to go through that and you want to have a foreign driver [hiring a Saudi man to drive is cost prohibitive], you need to apply for a visa. And then a visa itself is very expensive…You don’t know this person. There isn’t a background check. Every other day you open the newspaper, you hear of a driver who has either raped, killed, or kidnapped someone. I have an eighteen-month-old son. I don’t want my son to be in a situation where I have to worry about him.
What was the reaction when you were in the car?
al-Yousef: Most people were noticing us and were flashing us the victory sign and thumbs-up — they were very excited about it.
al-Haidar: People say that Saudis are not ready for Saudi females to drive…We passed by so many drivers who didn’t even realize it was a woman who was driving. The idea of Saudis not being ready is absurd.
Did you get pulled over?
al-Yousef: One incident. And the policeman told us to just go home. He was very nice.
How does it feel not being allowed to drive?
al-Yousef: Frustrating. Very frustrating. And demeaning at the same time.
What makes you think that this movement will succeed where the last protest, in 1990, failed?
al-Haidar: You have to keep in mind, in the ’90s we didn’t have the Internet. But now with Facebook and Twitter, the truth has to come out. Women who are in full Islamic garb videotaped themselves driving their cars. There’s nothing in the Islamic religion that prevents women from driving. If you think about it, from the days of the prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him — women were on horseback. A car is a lot more modest than horseback. I think because of the Internet and the fact that it allows a lot of people to show what’s going on, that’s why there’s been a lot of momentum with this movement.
[To al-Yousef] How do you like the Avalon?
al-Yousef: Excuse me?
How does it drive? This interview is for a car magazine…
al-Yousef: I love it. This is my second Avalon. I love Avalons.
[To al-Haidar] What would you like to drive when you can?
al-Haidar: Actually, I would really like to drive a pearl-colored Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t know why, it’s just something. It has to be pearl colored. It looks like a nice bubble.
1888: Two years after Karl Benz was granted a patent for his three-wheeled Benz Patent Motorwagen, his wife, Bertha, drives it sixty-two miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany.
1905: Mary D. Allen opens a car dealership, selling Stevens-Duryeas in Brooklyn.
1909: Twenty-two-year-old Alice Ramsey drives across the United States, covering 3800 miles (152 of them paved).
1911: “The unfavorable influence of the automobile upon pregnancy has been somewhat exaggerated,” concludes a report to the New York Obstetrical Society.
1914: World War I presses European women into service driving ambulances, trucks, and tractors.
1915: Movie star Anita King drives across the U.S. by herself. She also sets a record by driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 17 hours and 55 minutes.
1928: Elisabetta Junek, from Czechoslovakia, takes the lead in the second lap of the Targa Florio. She later says a rock thrown by a spectator caused her to lose the race.
1929: British aristocrat Dorothy Paget funds Tim Birkin’s effort to race supercharged Bentleys. W. O. Bentley hates it.
1931: Former exotic dancer and Frenchwoman Helle Nice races in five grands prix driving a Bugatti Type 35C.
1936: Chrysler hires a female engineer, Mary Virginia Sink.
1949: Louise Smith participates in a NASCAR race.
1955: The Dodge La Femme targets women drivers with pink and white paint. It’s a flop.
1956: New York Herald Tribune reporter Denise McCluggage files a race report from Montgomery, New York. She barely mentions that she took first place in the women’s event.
1957: General Motors hires nine women to the design staff, albeit at lower pay than their male counterparts.
1971: Women are given access to the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
1976: Shirley Muldowney wins an NHRA Top Fuel race. She would go on to become a three-time Top Fuel champion.
1977: Janet Guthrie qualifies for the Indy 500 and finishes twenty-ninth.
1990: Nearly four dozen Saudi women drive in the capital city of Riyadh. They are banned from leaving the country for a year, and those with government jobs are fired.
2005: The number of licensed female drivers in the United States surpasses that of males (the gap is widening).
2008: Danica Patrick’s victory at the Japan 300 makes her the first woman to win an IndyCar race.
2011: Thirty-two-year-old Manal al-Sharif posts a YouTube video of herself driving in late May. Saudi authorities detain her for ten days. On June 17, more than a dozen women again defy the ban.