Oct. 26, 2013, is a new date for Saudi women’s attempts to take to the wheel, as Saudi female activists launched the October 26 Initiative. The activists had created a website for the initiative, which was blocked after the number of supporters — including males and females — reached 12,000.
Saudi circles expected the October 26 Initiative to achieve a partial success in mobilizing Saudi society, by shedding light on one of the most important rights sought by Saudi women, who are still not allowed to drive in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women have not been granted this right.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz said in 2007 that lifting the ban on women’s driving is a social decision, and the role of the state is to ensure the appropriate environment.
On Nov. 6, 1990, 47 Saudi women who held senior governmental positions staged a public protest by driving their cars in the capital Riyadh. This was the first and the most prominent step in the women’s movement for lifting the ban on women driving in the country.
Fawzia al-Bakr, one of the participants in the Nov. 6, 1990, protest, confirmed that she will not participate in the October 26 Initiative. She claims that she fulfilled her role in 1990, and that this responsibility has been passed on to the new generation.
According to Bakr, the October 26 Initiative expresses the need of a specific stage, while the movement in 1990 was an expression of a dream. She said that currently Saudi women and those who support them — in particular [male] family members — have undergone a radical change and therefore society has begun looking at women’s driving as a natural right that should be left to the decision of individual women. If they wanted to yield their right they should be able to do so, and they should also be entitled to refuse to exercise such a right, as is the case for women all over the world.
Bakr described the initiative as very normal, and said that it somewhat reflects the image of new Saudi women. She indicated that society must be ready for changes in women’s ambitions, visions of life and attitudes toward society, their husbands and their careers.
She stressed that the women being able to drive would be one of the mechanisms that could facilitate the country's development initiative led by Abdulaziz. Bakr expected this initiative to be accepted more than the movement she led along with 46 other women in 1990. This is for several reasons, the most important of which is society’s [current] mind-set, in conjunction with the formal and social acceptance of this issue.
Bakr explained that social media allowed this initiative to have possibilities that were not available to her movement, in terms of communicating with people and mobilizing supporters. Moreover, this initiative benefits from positive awareness campaigns.
On a different note, Bakr stressed the need to issue laws to protect women from harassment and abuse.
Noura al-Ghanem, one of the other 47 women who participated in the 1990 protest, stated that the difference in time between their protest and the new initiative may be in favor of the latter. This is in the best interest of women in Saudi Arabia, in such a way that the demands they have been requesting for 23 years now would be met.
She added that social networks played a role in social awareness regarding the importance of women's driving, which became a self-evident right. Ghanem expressed her concern from some extremist opponents and those issuing controversial fatwas.
Ghanem pointed out that the initiative would not be rejected by the government, since Saudi authorities stated that lifting the ban on women drivers is a social matter to be determined by society. It is worth noting that attempts by a number of Saudi women over the past few years to take to the wheel did not face a violent backlash, which implies acceptance.
Ghanem said that she will not participate in the October 26 Initiative, since she already played her role, and that now it is the turn of young enthusiastic women to accomplish the mission, noting that she eagerly follows up on all developments related to this initiative. She added that she believes the initiative will not be a rally or a revolution, but that women in Saudi Arabia will be driving cars without relying on men, wondering whether they will be provided with security protection or not.
This initiative faced much opposition on social networking sites, especially on Twitter, in an attempt to stop it. Perhaps the most notable objection was that of Sheikh Saleh Lohaidan, a Saudi cleric who said that driving has a negative physiological impact on women’s organs.
Ahead of the October 26 Initiative, a Saudi woman took her car on a drive in Takhassusi Street in the center of Riyadh, according to a video posted on YouTube. It is likely that this occurred at noon on Friday, Oct. 4.
The video showed the woman stopping at a traffic light and abiding by traffic laws, while her action did not stir any angry reactions from drivers in the street.
This was not the only incident, it was followed by a lady who drove her car in the city of Jeddah. The woman from this other video, which later went viral on social networking sites, said that she drove accompanied by a male relative and was not subjected to harassment and molestation. She added that no one stopped her, in reference to the traffic police.
The woman called on other Saudi women who possess a driver's license to rely on God and start driving their own cars.