Wajeha Al Huwaider, a woman, driving in Saudi Arabia

This incredible video from 2008 shows Saudi activist Wajeha Al Huwaider driving a car in Saudi Arabia on International Women's Day. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive; by shooting footage of herself driving and then posting it on YouTube, she was able to send a message out to the world while also protecting herself from punishment through international exposure.

This video was part of a presentation on how Muslim women are using the web for human rights by Mona Eltahawy at the Skoll World Forum. More than half of bloggers in Saudi Arabia are women, and many are using the medium as a way to speak out.


  1. I’m a saudi and i think that saudi’s law that women can’t drive is stupid. For a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it’s taking away a basic freedom, but also the law has resulted in a huge drain on the saudi economy as lots of people hire in migrant male workers as drivers to ferry their womenfolk about.
    This practice is bizarely considered culturally acceptable despite the fact that it usually involves the women being alone with a man they are not related to, which is a big taboo in islam. It’s ridiculous.
    I think one of the issues that gets in the way of this is that saudi has a culture of punishing women for the potential “sin” of men. Men find women attractive and may think unpure thoughts about them, so the make the women cover up.
    Women travelling alone might get attacked by men and raped? Stop women from travelling alone and thus driving.
    Saudi also has social issues revolving around this though because young men and women rarely mix men don’t understand women and don’t respect them. There are stories of cars full of women being surrounded by large SUVs and forced to stop, and the women inside being raped. I don’t know how often they are or even how truthful they are, but knowing the general populace, it wouldn’t suprise me.
    Some people argue that the saudi populace isn’t ready for women to drive. And that the government is waiting it out. The problem with this argument is that it’s a chicken and egg situation. Nothing is being done to “reform” the saudi mentality in such a way that would prepare them.
    I’m currently reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” and it’s scary how much some of the society in it reminds me of saudi. Saudi is in dire need of social reform to fix many of it’s problems, bet it’s so fucked up that i don’t think anyone knows where to start.

  2. Well I was working in Saudi some 15 years ago and I knew 3 western woman that drove themselves wearing just a headscarf… They never had any problems (but they were well connected to royalty…) therein lies the rub!

  3. I can’t believe they’re allowing women to blog!

    Seriously, this the fact things like this can get out there just goes to show that cultural change will (hopefully) outstrip ridiculous medieval, religious and dogmatic intolerance and its ridiculous restrictions on humanity.

  4. Exposure may protect her from the farcical charge of driving while female, but it’s unlikely to shield her from prosecution for driving without a license or driving without insurance.

    1. how do you know she doesn’t have a license? she may very well have one from some other country; its obvious she knows how to drive. and the insurance? its usually to the vehicle which covers anyone who drives it. but last i knew insurance for cars was not mandatory in saudi.

      1. bigvicproton, you’re right about the insurance, of course: I was forgetting it’s widely considered to be forbidden by the Qur’an. It seems exceptionally unlikely she had a valid driving license though: unless things have changed very recently, Saudi Arabia is still one of those countries where foreign licenses are only valid for 90 days.

        1. So… you want her to go to jail? I’m just trying to understand what point you’re trying to make here?

          Listen, I’m Arab, I’ve lived in these countries. You wanna know a dirty little secret?

          The law. Is not. Applied. Equally. Which, last I checked, was kind of the point.

          Driving without a license? I’ve done that. I was below 18 (legal driving age) and was living in the UAE. I’m a man, my father had wasta (a term loosely connected to nepotism, but more like “connections”) the cops pulled me over for a crappy U-turn and guess what happened? Nothing.

          Now, had I been a non-Arab, or an Arab with lower caste status (I have American citizenship) then the outcome would be different. If I were a Pakistani who wasn’t running an errand for some more powerful Emirati who could vouch for me, chances are I’d have been arrested. If I had been a woman? We’ll it depends on what kind of woman, if I’m non-Emirati, whether or not my husband is my sponsor matters (sponsor is the wrong word by the way. The Arabic word is “Kafeel” which is more like “guarantor” and basically implies full responsibility over the person in question. I.e. Oh, you’re the sponsor, you sort them out.)

          These countries have big problems not so much with corruption, which can be a problem at times, and definitely does happen- but with the level of discretion afforded to the police. So you see, for something like this, it’s very easy for someone in the upper-reaches of government to say, “Yeah guys, we’ll let this one slide.”

          The rabbit hole goes deeper than most people care to know.

          1. The Chemist, my point was Lisa’s assumption that posting this video to Youtube constitutes some kind of protection is wrong.

            Saudi Arabia may or may not be fearful of the PR backlash that jailing a driver simply for being a woman would cause, but they could side-step the issue by jailing her for driving without a license, which is unlikely to foment international condemnation on account of being something that could easily happen in any jurisdiction.

    2. How could there be a violation of “driving w/o a license” or “driving without insurance” if the entire gender is prohibited from driving???? Only a male could be guilty of those violations, right?

    3. Exposure may protect her from the farcical charge of driving while female, but it’s unlikely to shield her from prosecution for driving without a license or driving without insurance.

      Because magical pieces of paper prevent auto accidents, you know.

  5. While I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, I would say it is difficult to imagine a worse country to live in than Saudi Arabia.

  6. Saudi Arabia: It’s like South Africa twenty years ago, except that nobody’s going to avoid dealing with them because they’re all too in love with their money and oil.

  7. Where did she learn how to drive? Did she live outside the country for awhile or can women in Saudia Arabia get away with driving illegally under the right circumstances? Are there reasonable cops who realize that their country has screwed up laws and pretend not to notice women driving cars? I want to know more about the story.

    1. It’s not like driving is hard. We no longer have to advance spark manually. Licensing is more a scam than anything else.

      I admire your courage, Mrs. Al Huwaider. Keep striking blows for human liberty, and keep yourself safe.

      1. Anon@37: “Licensing is more a scam than anything else.”

        No Fault insurance is a scam. Licensing is documentation from the state indicating that the licensed driver has demonstrated minimal operational competency. The fees are a scam, but regressive taxation is a topic for another thread.

  8. One small left-hand turn for a woman, one giant moving violation for womankind.

    The thing that struck me about that video is how unlike the media image of Saudi Arabia it looks. I was expecting sand dunes to the horizon.

  9. Unfortunately, this raises the specter of upper-class/aristocratic women achieving more rights and common women getting none. Actually, the U.S. is one of the only countries where women’s suffrage wasn’t tightly allied with labor/employment rights. Will “the Kingdom” be another?

    1. You have to start some where. Oppressing all women “equally” isn’t helping any of them at all. Ultimately all of those problems have to be worked on, but every step IMO is worthwhile.

      However, I agree that it goes both ways. Oppressed classes can set the standard by which all women are oppressed.

  10. Good for her, i wish they had the freedom to drive, which will come sooner or later, Saudi is getting better and better, our King, Abdulah is a reformer. and BTW there IS insurance in Saudi. I HATE it when ppl speak about things they have no idea about!

  11. Scary. Reminds me of a show I watched a few weeks ago, I think it was CBS Sunday Morning, where an American guy who lived in Yemen for a year or so took the news crew around to show them how awesome traditional Yemen culture is. Maybe Yemen is awesome… if you’re a guy. No women on the street. No women in the market. I don’t know how the people there reproduce because it is apparently a completely male society. The scariest part, actually, was how the American news show didn’t say a single word about women. Maybe they thought that to mention women would be akin to “politicizing” the piece, but such an omission, especially when discussing Yemen’s traditional culture, has clear political and cultural implications.

  12. Unfortunately, Saudi is a country where female circumcision is still performed (removal of the clitoris). I only mention this to remind everyone just how brutal, demeaning, and criminal the men are to women in that society. I suspect the ability for a woman (this woman included) to even attempt equality depends heavily on the region and their social stratification. There is no doubt in my mind that she is privileged. I do not mean to be insensitive to her as I believe she is attempting something that is honorable, however, being of a high social class and driving through the countryside is one thing, driving through the urban and/or densely populated areas (particularly in the southern regions) would be quite another. On one hand I applaud this (regardless of just how dangerous it actually was), but on the other I am afraid there will be victims because of this type of video. Under privileged women in Saudi might see this and become emboldened to make similar displays that would not have the same consequences. For women to make a difference and to provoke change there must be some underlying foundation to build upon. I simply do not believe there is any foundation for women rights at all in Saudi Arabia at this time. The social system there is simply too broken at this time; far beyond women rights. In many cases, there does not even exist the most simple human rights.

    1. I agree that there are many problems with the social system but come on!
      It’s surprising how people can make up facts here!
      Female circumcision might be a problem facing women in many parts of the world but it’s not a problem that is found in Saudi Arabia or if it does exist I claim that the incidence is no different than that in the US

  13. She’s actually driving legally up until 1:43 in the video, as she’s driving in a private compound. Women are forbidden from driving on public roads, but they can drive on private roads.

    I was lucky enough to travel to Jeddah (the most liberal city in KSA) in January to work for a few weeks. It’s much more complicated than you can imagine unless you’ve been there and seen how the society operates.

  14. Remember, Saudi Arabia is our ally, and therefore it’s ok if they’re a Misogynistic society who allow children to be sold off for marriage, kill women for using facebook, or whip rape victims for being raped. All that talk about freeing women in Iraq & Afganistan was just that, talk.

  15. Isn’t Saudi Arabia the country that just recently arrested a popular TV host and sentenced him to death for witchcraft?

    And anybody thinks “world opinion” is going to prevent them from prosecuting a woman driver?

    Somebody ask Peter Watts how well this whole “world opinion” thing works to protect against Kafka-esque prosecution in brutal regimes with a largely provincial, uneducated, and superstitious citizenry.

  16. I agree with all the comments that point out how wrong the male-centric society of the Middle East is.

    I say take away the women. Let them leave and go to other countries where women are accepted as humans. Let all those chauvanistic fellas die out with no woman to reproduce with, only then will they realize the importance of woman’s rights.

    Also, can we get some subtitling on this video? It’s pretty pointless to sit and watch 5 minutes of the same shot with no clue whatsoever what the woman is saying. It could be 30 seconds if that’s all it’s gonna be.

    I know Arabs, I’ve lived close with Arabs, I have a love/hate relationship with them. They can be extremely loving and loyal people, and then they can turn on a dime and be lying backstabbers. The society is completely backwards and dare I say, “Wrong”. Yes wrong. If you are gonna kill or stone a woman for any of their dumb reasons, they lose the ability to be respected and excepted as a proper “society”. Half the laws in their culture force me to consider them sub-civilized. I don’t care if they invented the zero, if they can’t play well with others they don’t deserve to play at all.

    1. “I say take away the women. Let them leave and go to other countries where women are accepted as humans. Let all those chauvanistic fellas die out with no woman to reproduce with, only then will they realize the importance of woman’s rights.”

      I’m with you on this zorro. It saddens me to read some of the kiddos on the internet discounting feminism as an outdated unnecessary “man-hating” doctrine when there are still so many parts of the world (even in the good ol’ USA) where women are essentially slaves.

  17. I had gotten the impression that such laws are in force in the cities, but that Bedouin women drive pretty regularly.

  18. Yeah, as others had said, I wish this had subtitles. I’d like to know what the woman is saying.

  19. With my poor Arabic skills: she was talking about the willingness of women to drive, her wishes for women to be allowed to do so. And how this is a political, social and religious issue implicating the leaders to address it.

    1. Unfortunately there’s already a rather long queue, which includes women and gay people and ethnic minorities from most of the countries in the world.

    2. If only – people seeking asylum all too often have to have at least one of their oppressirs attached still, with some sort of deadly weapon.

      In too many countries the issue has been so politicised that waits are absurd (“security checks” on top of actually verifying your claim often take years, add low intake quotas to that too) and the conditions individuals are placed in are so appaling that unless there was zero certainty in your survival, you just wouldn’t go there.

      Which makes the lack of diplomatic pressure on countries where people are coming from even more scandalous.

  20. I guess it wouldn’t be practical for Bedouins to keep half their work force from driving.

    Don’t these people realize that when people see these things they are going to make quick and simplistic generalizations about ALL Muslims, no matter how modern and reasonable they are in the observance of their religion? They are acting against the interest of Muslims as a whole by contributing to prejudices which other Muslims must swim upstream against.

  21. Here are subtitles. I’m not a native speaker, but am fluent. I dashed them off in a hurry, and they’re about 95%. Note to Boingboing: please read below, and correct your post accordingly.

    (0:00) Today, of course, is the International Women’s Day. First of all, I want to congratulate all women who have received their rights. And I hope all women that are still fighting in order to receive (0:30) their rights will receive them soon. Of course, I’m driving a car right now in the Na’iyah Regions of the Kingdom, which allow women to drive cars. While unfortunately in the cities, the places where they need to drive cars, it remains prohibited. With regard to the International Women’s Day, I hope (1:00) that Prince Naif bin ‘Abdul-‘Azeez, interior Minister, will permit us to drive, soon. And we, the women that have signed the message that we’ve delivered to him today, all of us will get driver’s licenses. And it is possible for us to drive cars in our cities, and furthermore, many of us are ready (1:30) to help the country train other women to get their licenses. Of course, the problem is — as with the hesitation of all the responsible officials — is that the issue of women driving is not a political issue, nor a religious one, (2:00) but rather a social one. And we know that many of the women of our society are able to drive. And many families allow their women to drive. And further, if the door were opened to women driving, I imagine that if would be the easiest and most peaceful way and an opportunity for everyone to change (2:30) this idea that we’re unready to drive. That is everything, and I hope as well that next year’s International Women’s Day will come and our luck will be improved.

      1. After some digging: “Na’iyah Regions” could be better translated “remote emirates” (where an emirate is a first-level administrative division, like a US state). I don’t think it’s a proper noun.

  22. Can someone please look up which part of the Qur’an forbids women to operate automobiles? Because if it’s actually in there somewhere you may color me impressed with the Prophet’s foresight.

  23. Like many Americans (and I would guess western civilization, but I won’t speak for other countries) I had a vague idea of the injustice done to the fairer sex in the UAE. Then I started working at a college. A college that has a fairly large Arab population. Part of my job is to help tutor students in the use of computers to get their work done, especially for those people that don’t have any technology-oriented major.

    I’ve ended up helping a lot of arab women. Almost exclusively in fact. Not because they’re unintelligent, or because they’re lazy. It’s because the society they came from doesn’t allow them the tools to be successful once they move out of their society. Even the most basic things have to be explained. Such as what the home row on the keyboard is. Or the concept of copy and paste.

    Make no mistake, I’m not complaining about teaching them. I just find it sad and ultimately uplifting that they have work so much harder to do the same work that other students are doing.

  24. Peace be upon you,
    I’m an Arab woman. A Yemeni national woman who was born in Saudi Arabia.
    I’ve lived in Riyadh, the capital, since my birth and up to now, and I’m about 33 years old, so I know enough about Saudi Arabia, and I’m mature enough to speak about women’s rights here, but, ironically, I have no rights because I’m a woman, and because I don’t have the Saudi nationality.
    Actually, I come to this site by a mere coincidence, as I was searching for any site that might help a woman who seeks her rights in Saudi Arabia.
    I’ve been always thinking deeply of women issues here in Saudi Arabia. What you know is almost nothing compare to what we really suffer daily. Things are just a little bit easier or better with Saudi women (nationals) regarding to financial aspect, in short, they have more money let’s say, to pay for a driver, or even to pay for a male relative in order to guarantee that he’ll treat her better (in return for benefitting from her financially). Another privilege Saudi women have over us (non-Saudis living in SaudiArabia), is that they don’t have to take a permission from their male tutor only, where we take permission from our Saudi Sponsor/Guardian AND our male tutor, I hope you understand the picture now! Yes.. It’s awful, scary, and very..very humiliating! The word ‘oppression’ isn’t really enough!
    Now, let me just make things clear for you all, it’s not Islam, it’s we, the Arabs!
    I’m ‘Arab’ by the way, pure-blooded Arab, but I have to admit that we have ruined the name of Islam by our own Arabian unfair customs that degrade women and humiliate them, and Saudi Arabia is a CLEAR example.
    In Saudi Arabia, I’m not allowed to do many things without the permission of my male tutor (and Saudi sponsor in some cases), here are examples:
    – Getting married (that’s why I haven’t get married till now despite having lots of men who proposed to me several times)
    – Travelling (that’s why I can’t travel unless I steal MY OWN passport from my parents and pay money to some ‘contacts’ to help me doing the ‘exit and re-entry’ visa).
    – Studying in colleges and universities (Unless you fraud signatures of the your male tutor OR you have some ‘nice’ people in the admission department who understand your situation and allow to study without the permission, so.. it’s like begging your own right).
    – Working ( unless you do like what mentioned in ‘Studying’ point)
    – Leaving your study or work place during work hours (you’re under supervision, exactly like prisoners, even if you’re over 30 years old, honestly, no kidding!).
    – Entering some hospitals, including emergency cases and doing surgeries.
    – Going to some public or governmental places ( you may face one of four situations, either you need a permission, or you a male companion from your relatives, or you may not be allowed even with that companion, so he’ll go on your behalf, or.. if that place has a female section you can go, yet you might need your male tutor and/or sponsor permission, and the female sections aren’t available in many ministries and departments, especially the essential ones, like passports and immigration for instance).
    – Doing business.
    – Other.. I can’t count everything here, but these are major examples.
    As you can see, we’re almost like salves or children, where in Qura’an did God say that? Nowhere! It’s a mere Arab invention!
    I’ve been trying to have the simple natural right of getting married or travelling to study, but I’m not allowed unless my parents and Saudi sponsor allows me. My parents aren’t odd here, the majority of the society here is against women’s freedom or even women’s respect. I want to live an let live, but I couldn’t. My parents are controlling me, and now my father is getting older, and my brother (who’s 7 years younger than me) is going to ‘inherit’ the right of controlling our lives (me and my sisters).My brother has literarily threaten us many times if we didn’t ‘obey’ him in whatsoever he ordered us. So now they force us to pay from our salaries to them, and they want to force us to get married to whom they want.
    I’ve always respected my family and believed that they’re just so different than me, and they’re so influenced by all of bad and unfair customs of Saudis and Yemenis back at our original home, but they think I’m a ‘big’ sinner for thinking of my freedom, I don’t even dare to speak about my rights with my father or brother, as I might get punished severely!
    Needless to say that we’re not allowed to leave home without their permission even for innocent errands like shopping or visiting a friend. We’re not even allowed to wear certain kinds of clothes.
    What I haven’t mentioned could be more scary, I’m just giving you a very basic hint about what kind of situation women suffer from here.
    Yet, I tried to seek help from the UN committee here in Riyadh, through the responsible of refugees’s issues (an Egyptian woman whose name’s Nuha Maa’roof), and she replied to me harshly and rudely. She was so angry that I kept on trying to call her, and she spoke to me exactly like some so-called religious scholars do when I used to speak to them about anything.
    I told her I’m suffering from lots of horrible things with my family, I’m living in fear and oppression always, and I explain in brief that I need to be helped to get out from this country, as I can’t go back to Yemen, since it’s also another country that oppresses women, and my relatives there are worse than my father and brother. She told me (We’re not a travelling agency!) I told her I don’t want you to pay for my travelling or tickets, I’m mature and strong enough to support myself, and I have enough money for my ticket and trip, just tell me how to leave this country, but she roughly and rude said (what happens for you is family’s issues, we don’t involve in this). I was so shocked; because I read in the UN documents that a woman who suffers just half of what I’m being through deserve the UN help! BUT it’s Saudi Arabia, women aren’t even allowed to run away and choose their lives.
    It doesn’t matter if I die out of grief or not, but this savage, inhumane tragedy MUST stop!
    It’s really so true, that western politicians are ‘covering’ up the truth about our sorrows, because Saudi Arabia (and all other Gulf countries) are SO RICH to be questioned. Therefore, who’ll dare to help a woman like me?
    I could write thousands of pages about my life here, women rights here, and women sufferings here in Saudi Arabia.
    I always close my eyes every night on that fearless hope, that I could leave this country one day, I always ask God desperately to help me leaving it to a country where I can breath and speak and walk and love freely, like.. a ‘real’ human being!
    I’m smart, funny, elegant, creative, and beautiful, but not allowed to marry whom I want, or study where I want, or do what I want, or wear what I want!!!
    It’s so painful looking at your youth years passing away without you living the way you want. I write poetry, short stories, novels, but I’m not allowed to publish them. It’s so unfair that I’m being buried alive, just for being a woman!
    I just always ask myself, is there a way to get out from here?
    Is there a way to run away?

    1. Peace be upon you, my lady.

      The Unitarian Universalists (who are not “unitarian” in the Saudi Wahabi sense) will try to help you if you contact them.

      http://www.uu-uno.org/ or http://www.uusc.org

      Please be careful what you post, do not let the religious police track your IP and do not give your real name.

      If you escape to the United States, you will need job skills to provide for yourself. The USA may be more enlightened than Saudi Arabia, but it does not provide well for those who cannot or will not work hard.

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