Adonis Diaries

Archive for October 16th, 2017

Once Shunned as ‘Drivers,’ Saudi Women Who Fought Ban now Celebrate

They were arrested, suspended from jobs, shunned by relatives and denounced by clerics as loose women out to destroy society. Their offense? They did what many in Saudi Arabia considered unthinkable: getting in cars and driving.

Their protest in 1990 against the kingdom’s ban on women driving failed, and the women paid dearly for it, with the stigma of being “drivers” clinging to them for years.

So last month, when King Salman announced that the ban on women driving would be lifted next June, few were happier than the first women to demonstrate for that right — almost three decades ago.

“I’d thought maybe I’d die before I saw it,” said Nourah Alghanem, who had helped plan the protest. Now she’s 61 and retired with five grandchildren. “What’s important is that our kingdom entered the 21st century — finally!”


The backlash against the 47 women who protested illustrates how deeply the driving ban was embedded in Saudi Arabia’s conservative society, reinforced by the state and its religious apparatus.

But since then, globalization, social media, economic pressures and leadership changes finally created the conditions for the ban to end.

These are dizzying days in Saudi Arabia.

Car makers are now targeting advertisements toward Saudi women, and a women’s university is planning a driving school.

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 D.J. played music. 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.

“I’d thought maybe I’d die before I saw it,” said Nourah Alghanem, who helped plan the 1990 protest against the driving ban, which is being lifted next year.CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Controlling Women

At the time of the protest, Ms. Alghanem was 34, with a high school degree, a husband, four children and a job at an elementary school.

“I didn’t have anything interesting in my life,” she recalled.

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 chafed under the ban saw an opportunity when Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman, invaded Kuwait in 1990. American forces flooded the kingdom, including American servicewomen who drove military vehicles. Kuwaiti women who had fled the invasion also drove.

Ms. Alghanem took note.

“I saw that we as Saudi women were powerless,” she said.

She invited other women to her home to discuss the issue, and they later 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 said, so on Nov. 6, 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, recalled 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.


“It is not just driving a car, it is driving a life,” said Asma Alaboudi, a school social worker who participated in the 1990 protest. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Furious Backlash

The next morning, Asma Alaboudi, a school social worker who had participated, overheard her colleagues saying that the women at the protest had burned 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,” Ms. Bakr recalled.

Monera Alnahedh, who later became an international development worker, said 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 said.

Some friends and relatives shunned the women.

“It was a very, very scary environment,” Ms. Alajroush said.


Monera Alnahedh, who became an international development worker, said her father quit praying at his local mosque after the preacher said the protesting women had been inseminated by 10 men. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

‘A Decade of Silence’

The harsh response from the state and society buried the issue of women driving.

“It was a very heavy blow on the women who drove, and it was perceived by the society as a very heavy blow,” said Ms. Alnahedh, the development worker. “There was a decade of silence.”

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 programs for abused women and children.

After she participated in the protest, 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, as punishment. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Slowly, society changed.

University enrollment for both women and men rose, and in 2005, King Abdullah created a scholarship program that sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis, including many women, abroad, broadening their perspectives.

He added women to the Shura Council, an advisory body, and social media spread among the kingdom’s youth, giving them freedom online that they lacked in real life.

The internet eroded the monopoly Saudi clerics had on religious interpretation, and many Saudis realized how differently Islam was practiced in other countries.

The government allowed women to work in new jobs, making their daily commute an issue.

Younger activists started to revive the struggle to let women drive.

In 2011, Manal al-Sherif posted a video of herself driving online and was detained. In 2013, dozens of Saudi women drove to protest the ban.

In 2014, Loujain Hathloul tried to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia in her car and was jailed for 73 days.

Few of the women who had driven in 1990 joined the new protests, but they cheered the younger women.

“We were very angry,” Ms. Alajroush, the photographer, said of Ms. Hathloul’s detention. “But inside of me, I thought that was a big step forward because finally we were taken seriously.”


Fawziah al-Bakr, a professor, with her son, Motaz Alyahya, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She was one of the 47 women who took to the road in 1990 to demand the right to drive.CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

‘Driving a Life’

In 2015, Salman became king, and he empowered his young son, Mohammed bin Salman, who is now crown prince.

As the price of oil sank, sapping the economy, the crown prince laid out a sweeping plan to reform the economy, including increasing women’s participation in the work force.

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.

Then late last month, Ms. Alghanem, who had held the first meeting on the driving ban in 1990, was playing cards when her phone suddenly began overflowing with messages, she said.

Her husband called, shouting, “Congratulations!” and told her the ban was being lifted.

Ms. Alghanem — who had merely ridden along in 1990 and still cannot drive — now plans to learn.

“I must get a license and drive,” she said.

The government has played down any role the women activists played in prompting the decision, and some of the women say security officials have told them in phone calls to keep quiet.

The Information Ministry denied such calls were being made.

Many Saudis argue that the women exacerbated the issue by provoking the conservatives. In the kingdom, they argue, rights are given by the ruler, not publicly demanded by the people.

A woman parking her car in a town in Saudi Arabia owned by the oil company Aramco. In this so-called “mini-America,” woman are allowed to drive. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

“It is natural that they are happy that they have been given their legal right that they had demanded before,” Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaid, a businessman, 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 so-called 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 automobile.

“That I am driving means that I know where I am going, when I’m coming back and what I’m doing,” said Ms. Alaboudi, the social worker.

“It is not just driving a car,” she said, “it is driving a life.”

Correction: October 7, 2017 
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified a Saudi woman who took to the road in 1990 to demand the right to drive. She is Meshael al-Bakr, not Fawziah, who is her sister.

Notes and tidbits on FB and Twitter. Part 71

L’humour est une dynamite silencieuse et polie: vous sautez la condition présente avec discrétion
La dignité, voila ce qu’il défendait. Il voulait que l’homme fût traité décemment. Ces vouloires viennent quand l’estomach est rassasié et qu’on se sent tant soit peu dans une communauté stable.
C’était un homme qui croiyait á quelque chose de proper
Les Americains sont les pire criminelle de guerre: Personne n’a envahit leur territoire, et actent avec vengeance sans fondement, imbécile et féroce pour terroriser des peuples entiers
Avoid turning the project into a job. If all you’ve ever had is jobs (a habit that’s encouraged starting in first grade), it’s difficult to see just how easy it is to transform your work into a project.
Quand on coupe les gens de leur passé, sans rien leur donner á la place, ils vivent tournés vers ce passé. C’est ce qui arrive aux Indiens d’Amerique, aux tribus d’Afrique qui sont interdit de chasser et accomplir leurs rituels.
It’s Not a chateau, Not a villa, Not even a house. A plain apartment in a building where Hitler was raised. And Germany and Austria want to buy it in order Not to be transformed into a shrine. As if financing and building 9 nuclear submarines to Israel is Not the worst encouragement to apartheid and racism.
“Inutile, chére madame, de me préter des toiles pour atténuer l’austerité de ma prison. Quand j’ai des soucis, je regarde mes pieds”
Le parapet de chair de la masse qui ne sait pas écrire, á l’abris duquel le pays pouvait continuer de vivre.
Si vous cherchez un parti politique unifiant le monde, considérez les paysants isolés: ils ont les points communs partout dans le monde.
Les travailleurs des usines communiquent entre eux. Au moment crucial, ils sont des patriotes: they share the same general culture of their nation
Strategic errors are frequently repeated among warrior nations, due to inherent idée-fixe in the system they cannot let go with.
Germany in WWII made the same strategic error as in WWI for Not finishing completely the job on the western front before focusing on the Eastern front. England was already on its knees when Hitler launched his war against the Soviet Union: Stalin never considered fighting Hitler and couldn’t believe what was happening.
Il était devenu un autre homme, que le cousin n’etait pas suffisamment curieux pour decouvrir: il lui parlait constamment du passé.
Histoire de montrer qu’il n’y a pas de chagrin dans la solitude de vivre ensemble, mais séparer et independent.
En amour, il faut soigner le temps: la patience, un sacré culte du temps, qui panse les plaies des aventures
On doit avoir acquis la sensation que qu’il n’y a pas de temps sans amour, les amours des petites choses, des rêves, des desires, des actes infimes.
On pert son temps, on n’a pas le temps: On n’a pas trouvé assez d’amour
Un fond permanent d’ incrédulité d’avoir trahit ne laissait arriver la souffrance que par vagues
A Plan is a great exercise. A ten-year commitment is precisely what’s required to make an impact
If you had a choice to decide in WWII between 400 B29 carpet bombing a city for several days or dropping an atomic bomb? US could have flattened Dresden with an atomic bomb, but dropped it on Japan. Why?
Anomie political system: Politicians control all the economical and financial facets of the public life, including the infrastructure. Any citizen is at best a manager or caretaker of the business branches. Elections are rare events and totally biased.
Alors, tu ne savais pas que notre jeune république doit beaucoup a ton zéle et ta determination constante? Je m’incline á ta naiveté victoriueuse.
Chaque mois, j’apporte un bouquet de fleur á la tombe de Milan: un peu pour lui et beaucoup pour toi. Ton grand amour, platonique et entier pour notre Général, a donné une âme nouvelle á notre République.
Le deputé Noir du Senegal a son collégue noir au parlement Francais: Tais-toi. Tu me dois le respect. Mes ancétres ont manger les tiens.
There are individuals destined to do the good, the intention to do good mostly.
To feel the source of our ephemeral happiness needs to be worked on. Have to be content with small rivers, from a varieties of sources
Savoir et pouvoir: c’est le désire de tout homme, le plus souvent pendant nos rêves diurnes.
Power is material, but knowledge is mostly a point of view.




October 2017

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