Wajeha al-Huwaider is perhaps the best-known Saudi campaigner for women’s rights, human rights and democracy. She has protested energetically against the kingdom’s lack of formal laws (the Koran is it) and basic freedoms and in particular against the guardianship system, under which every female, from birth to death, needs the permission of a male relative to make decisions in all important areas of life—education, travel, marriage, employment, finances, even surgery. In 2008 a video of her driving a car, which is forbidden for women in Saudi Arabia, created a sensation when it was posted on YouTube. Al-Huwaider is a strong supporter of the June 17 Movement, which calls on Saudi women to start driving on that date, and made the celebrated YouTube video of its co-founder, Manal al-Sherif, jailed for nine days in May for driving. While this interview was in preparation, she was briefly detained by the police when she tried to visit Nathalie Morin, a French-Canadian woman held captive with her children by her Saudi husband.
§ Why the driving protests? And why now?
The issue of women drivers has remained unresolved since the driving protests of 1990. Just before the launching of the June 17 campaign, a group of well-known women and men signed a letter to the Shura, or Consultative Assembly, asking to reopen the discussion. It was rejected. That was the spark for the current protest of Manal and the other women. The issue never goes away.
§ How much support do women drivers have?
It’s hard to know exactly but it’s growing, and it might reach more than 50 percent of Saudi society.
§ I met a Saudi woman in Houston who mocked the focus on driving (she was driving me to a meeting at the time). She said the ban wasn’t important because “everyone” has a driver. How does not being able to drive affect Saudi women?
Not every family can afford to hire a driver. Many women have to rely on male relatives, who may not be available or willing when you need them. It’s incredibly frustrating! Also, not everyone wants a driver. I don’t have one, and neither does Manal. There’s no public transportation system here, so I walk all the time, and take taxis home from shopping. But in many villages that taxi “luxury” is not available for women.
§ Isn’t it strange that Saudi women can’t be alone with an unrelated man—except their driver?
Our rulers are willing to break their own laws to keep women isolated. In another country, a woman with a driver would look privileged—here, the message is that she is weak and untrustworthy. That kind of attitude travels down the generations—even after women get the right to drive it will take years to get rid of it.
§ In most Muslim countries, even monarchies like Morocco, women have more social freedom and legal rights than in Saudi Arabia. Why is Saudi Arabia so committed to repressing women?
Actually they are committed to repressing everybody—men, women, Saudis, non-Saudis. That’s why religious police are on the streets harassing and arresting people. Young men are beaten just for having long hair. But the police are more brutal with women, because women are half the society, and they raise the other half. So repressing and instilling fear in women is the most effective way to control the whole society.