Saudi Arabia's Women Problem

Ahead of the anniversary of a protest against the ban on female drivers, the country is warning women not to get behind the wheel again.

One of the lesser-noted tendrils of the Arab Spring, which kicked off in earnest in 2011 and has been all but declared over, is the ongoing movement to end the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia.

The decades-long ban, which technically stems from religious custom rather than an actual Saudi traffic law, also has a history of being challenged. In November 1990, with the region roiling from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, a group of 47 women joined together in a convoy and cruised down a major street in Riyadh in a "drive-in" protest. One of the rationales for choosing the moment was that a national emergency required their male custodians to be elsewhere.

The women gained immediate fame for their protest, but as Katherine Zoepf writes, not the kind that would lend their cause protection: "The forty-seven women, still collectively known in the kingdom as 'the drivers,' were detained, fired from their jobs, and widely pilloried."

One person who remembers the backlash against "the drivers" is Manal al-Sharif. As she told The Wall Street Journal last year: "When I was a kid they sent brochures all around the country, with the names of the women and their house numbers, encouraging people to call them and tell them to come back to Islam. They said these women had sex with American troops. They said they took off their hijabs and burned them."

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Sharif became a driver herself. In May 2011, she uploaded a video of herself driving around the Saudi city of Khobar. It went viral and garnered international support, but inspired threats against her at home. A week later, after she set off behind the wheel again, she was quickly spotted by police.

“They called the religious police, I was taken into interrogation and then they let me go," she recounted earlier this year as she received one in her growing collection of awards and honors. "But they came again to my house at 2 a.m. and took me to jail.” She remained in jail for the next nine days.

A few weeks after Sharif's ordeal, with the movement gaining steam, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton incited a diplomatic incident after offering her support for the issue during a visit to Riyadh.

What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves, seeking to be recognized.

Last year, a campaign called on Saudi women to defy the driving ban on October 26. The efforts were briefly given momentum after a Saudi cleric issued this doozy of a statement in which he warned that driving has a "physiological impact on women and could affect her ovaries and push the pelvis higher as a result of which their children are born with clinical disorders of varying degrees."

Dozens of women reportedly participated, but some said the reach was limited after the Saudi Interior Ministry warned that defying the ban would bring consequences.

A few weeks after last year's demonstration, Secretary of State John Kerry eschewed the Hillary approach during an official visit. Kerry said that while he is proud of gender equality in America, when it comes to driving, "it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events."

On Thursday, ahead of a renewed push to recreate the "drive-in" on the one-year anniversary, Saudi officials once again warned against defying the ban. Their reasoning? The protests represent "an opportunity for predators to undermine social cohesion."