They were captured, suspended from employments, evaded by relatives and reprimanded by priests as free ladies out to devastate society. Their offense? They did what numerous in Saudi Arabia considered inconceivable: getting into autos and driving.
Their challenge in 1990 against the kingdom’s restriction on ladies driving fizzled, and the ladies paid the consequences for it, with the shame of being “drivers” sticking to them for a considerable length of time.
So a month ago, when King Salman declared that the restriction on ladies driving would be lifted next June, few were more joyful than the principal ladies to show for that right – very nearly three decades prior.
“I’d thought perhaps incredible I saw it,” says Nourah Alghanem, who had helped design the dissent. Presently she’s 61 and resigned with five grandchildren. “What’s critical is that our kingdom entered the 21st century… at last!”
The reaction against the 47 ladies who dissented represents how profoundly the driving boycott was implanted in Saudi Arabia’s moderate society, fortified by the state and its religious device.
Be that as it may, from that point forward, globalization, web-based social networking, monetary weights and administration changes at long last made the conditions for the boycott to end.
And the changes are not only related to the prospect of so many new drivers on the kingdom’s highways. At a public celebration last month, crowds of men and women danced together as a DJ played. An end to the ban on cinemas is expected soon.
But in 1990, when the four dozen women took an extraordinary risk by fighting the driving ban, conditions in the kingdom were notably different.
At the time of the protest, Alghanem was 34-year-old graduate, with a husband, four children and a job at a school.
“I didn’t have anything interesting in my life,” she recalls.
At the time, Saudi women were severely restricted. The culture was highly patriarchal, and clerics, thanks to their alliance with the royal family, had tremendous power to defend the kingdom against what they considered to be corrupting influences.
Much of that meant controlling women, and they saw the driving ban as necessary to prevent adultery and other social ills.
“Allowing women to drive contributes to the downfall of the society,” the kingdom’s top cleric at the time wrote in a fatwa that was removed recently from a government website. “This is well known.”
Women who detested the ban saw an opportunity when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. US forces flooded the kingdom, including US servicewomen who drove military vehicles. Kuwaiti women who had fled the invasion also drove.
Alghanem took note.
“I saw that we as Saudi women were powerless,” she says.
She invited other women to her home to discuss the issue, and they decided to take action. They sent a letter to Salman – at the time the governor of Riyadh province – telling him that they planned to drive.
They never heard back, they say, so on 6 November 1990, they met near a supermarket in Riyadh, piled into 14 cars piloted by women with valid foreign licenses and drove around town.
They were social outliers, backed by no political party, and other Saudi women did not rush to join them. Many came from affluent families and had studied abroad. They included teachers, professors, a social worker, a photographer and a dentist.
Most were married with children; at least two were pregnant. One woman joined late, with her two daughters, one of whom was breast-feeding. Some had defied their male relatives to show up. Supportive husbands and brothers dropped off others at the meeting place.
Word spread, and the women were stopped by both the traffic police and the religious police, some of whom furiously banged on the cars.
“I want to dig a hole to bury you all!” Fawziah al-Bakr, an education professor, recalls one man shouting at her. “They were thinking that we were going to destroy this country.”
They were taken to the police station and released around dawn, after they and their male relatives signed pledges that the women would not drive again.
The next morning, Asma Alaboudi, a school social worker who had participated, overheard her colleagues saying that the women at the protest had burnt their clothes, worn bikinis and danced in the streets – all grave acts that had not happened.
Soon, the women’s names were distributed, inflaming public anger.
King Fahd issued a decree suspending those who had government jobs, and preachers excoriated them during Friday prayers.
“At that point, the society revolted,” Bakr recalls.
Monera Alnahedh, who later became an international-development worker, says her father quit praying at his local mosque after the preacher said the women had been inseminated by 10 men.
Officials from the interior ministry came to the home of Madeha Alajroush, a photographer, to confiscate and destroy all her negatives – 15 years of work.
“That was a way of punishing me,” she says.
Some friends and relatives shunned the women.
The suspended women struggled to find work, with some choosing to pursue advanced degrees.
About two years later, a princess intervened with the king, who returned them to their jobs and paid some of their lost wages.
Many of the 47 faded into private life, while others looked for ways to help women at girls’ schools, women’s universities and in programmes for abused women and children.
In 2011, Manal al-Sharif posted a video online of herself driving and was detained. In 2013, dozens of Saudi women drove to protest against the ban.
Other steps followed. Women voted and ran for seats on local councils in 2015 for the first time, and some won. Public schools were told to offer physical education for girls, which clerics had argued threatened their femininity..
“It is natural that they are happy that they have been given their legal right that they had demanded before,” Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaid wrote on Twitter. But he called the idea that the women’s “struggle” had influenced the decision “a great fantasy”.
The women believe the government will not acknowledge them so as not to encourage other activists.
Many restrictions on women remain, including guardianship laws that give Saudi men power over their female relatives on certain matters. But the original protesters are overjoyed that their daughters and granddaughters will have freer lives than they did, thanks to the car.
“That I am driving means that I know where I am going, when I’m coming back and what I’m doing,” says Alaboudi, the social worker.
“It is not just driving a car,” she says, “it is driving a life.”