Monday, October 3, 2011

American journalist recalls 1990 interview with one of the 47 Saudi women drivers

American journalist Rosemarye Levine lived in Saudi Arabia during the time of the 1990 driving demonstration in which 47 Saudi women, with support of their families, drove across Riyadh. Some months after the incident, Levine interviewed one of the drivers, and a few months ago, wrote about her interview - the story behind the story. A link to her article in the "Space Coast Progressive Alliance" is here  and the text is below. Thanks to Jean Grant, author of THE BURNING VEIL: A NOVEL OF ARABIA, who sent me the link to Levine's story.
Saudi Women Drive!

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, women may not drive cars, motorcycles or bicycles nor may they roller skate, ride a horse, donkey, ass or camel. In 1990, about 47 Saudi women had the courage and audacity to drive cars in the capital city. Then-journalist -- and now a wintertime member of SCPA -- Rosemarye Levine remembers the secretive interview that lead to her breaking the story for world news.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, women may not drive cars, motorcycles or bicycles nor may they roller skate, ride a horse, donkey, ass or camel.

This is not a religious stricture but something imposed on them by their culture.

Even women in Afghanistan, clad in their chaderi, have the right to drive on the streets of Kabul or Herat or anywhere else in their country. Saudi Arabia has the distinction of being the only country in the world that prohibits half the population from getting behind the wheel.

Thus, in a place where men and women are rigidly segregated, these same women find themselves in cars being chauffeured by strange men, neither a husband, father, brother or son over 12 (legally, the only males that may accompany Saudi women) but probably a Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Yemeni  or one of the many sub-continent expatriates who come to The Kingdom to fill these jobs.

On November 6, 1990, with the build up of the Gulf War in the country, some 47 Saudi women went into a parking lot in Riyadh and dismissed their disbelieving, frightened drivers and took the steering wheel into their own hands.

These gutsy women drove their cars on the main streets of the capital but were quickly spotted by the muttawaeen. These are the religious police who monitor the application of virtue and the suppression of vice. They called in the local police and had the women hauled off to jail.

Finally released to their male keepers, the husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. had to sign papers saying the women would never ever drive again and allow themselves to be publicly chastised for not controlling “their women.” These very brave females were all professionals with multiple academic degrees from oustanding international universities. Nonetheless, they were “bad women” and were fired from their jobs and had their passports lifted. Complete families were under house arrest.

In the Friday call to prayer, the imams broadcasted over loudspeakers the names and addresses and telephone numbers of these wicked women, depicted them as such, and told the public at large to “do with them as you will.”

The beleaguered women hunkered down in their houses, stayed off the streets and kept a low profile. The government, under King Fahd, did nothing to protect them. Their apartments and houses were entered, books destroyed, computers taken into custody as the muttawaeen searched for subversive material. The Gulf War proceeded into its next phase when troops from many countries came into KSA to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army. In the interim, these women had their passports returned with an exit-only visa, meaning they did not have an entry visa to return to their country if they left. The government wanted these trouble makers out of the country and gone. All stayed and did not leave.

About a month or so after the driving incident, I met with an informant who asked if I would like to interview the woman who was the unelected leader of the group. I jumped at the opportunity.
Then a meet-up that was out of a B movie was put in motion. First, I went to the shuttered and secluded women’s section of Baskin Robbins in AlKhobar where I met a Saudi woman who handed me a piece of paper and quickly left the shop before I could ask a question. On it was written that I should go to a store that sold abayas at the other end of town.

From the abaya shop, I was directed to a children’s kindergarten in a private compound where the director handed me a piece of paper with an apartment number at the housing complex at the University of Petroeum and Minerals in Dhahran. When I knocked on the door, an Arab women opened it, silenty gestured that I should come in and disappeared.

A middle aged woman was sitting at a table sipping tea. She shall remain nameless as shall everyone else in this episode. After apologizing for the run around from one stop to the next -- she was constantly followed -- the woman softly but determindely told me the story of the Friday morning drive in Riyadh and explained that the women who participated needed the complete acceptance by their fathers for the search for freedom to travel.

She then proceeded to explain that her Baba taught her English as a child and then sent her to a convent in Egypt for future schooling, thence to USA where she earned a PhD at Berkeley. For her time, this was most unusual. He imbued her with the ideas of equal rights for all peoples with the many books he brought back fom Europe and his constant preaching of human rights.

He had died the year before, her beloved mentor, but she remembers clearly that he constantly reminded her that it is not shameful to go to prison if one is apprehended for an act that is an expression of one’s quest to be free and equal.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right of freedom of movement. So, with this in mind and the echo of her father’s word, it was her decision to get behind the wheel. The interview was long, got published and gave me many insights to the workings within a liberal Saudi household.

These 47 women were the ones that the driver from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia had as her example just last month. It took 21 years for women to get up the hubris to do it again.
Recently, a rather tepid demonstration took place all of a certain Friday. I knew what would happen -- and it did.

King Abdullah, walking a tight line with the Al Shaikh family -- a partner in ruling Saudi Arabia through its religious proclamations -- turned a blind eye, instructed the police to ignore the women driving. He believes that, by attrition, this will come to pass. I feel there will be many an open-minded Saudi husband who will happily turn over the keys to the distaff member of the family.

Rosemarye Levine lived in Saudi Arabia for 14 years and was a foreign correspondent throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. She has been in every countrry in that area for extended periods, and was the coordinator for the British Press Pool during the Gulf War. Rosemarye and her husband, Marty, are wintertime members of SCPA.


  1. Thanks for this inspiring blog, Rosemarye (btw, what is SCPA? forgive my ignorance).
    Anyway, I am a woman and I love driving. I have been driving for 14 years now, and am deeply affected with how Saudi women drivers are treated. I've been visiting Saudi Women Drivers' site the past few days. There are also stories about Saudi women drivers' defiance recently. the news are inspiring. Just now, I came across another article written by a lady journalist from manila:

  2. Hello, Celie, thanks for stopping by and commenting! The SCPA is the Space Coast Progressive Alliance. You can follow a link to their website in the post above. I will check out the Manila story. Stay tuned....hopefully the change will come soon!

  3. Very interesting and impressive!
    Lynn Salisbuey