Fayez Nureldine / AFP - Getty Images
Saudi women get into the back seat of a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week. Saudi women are planning to take the wheel in protest against a driving ban that is unique to the conservative Sunni kingdom.
By Lubna Hussain, special to NBC News
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – This desert kingdom may be on the road to change.
It's been 21 years since 47 Saudi women took to the streets of Riyadh in a convoy in defiance of Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. And although the issue has been discussed at the highest levels of government since then, nothing has changed.
But a Facebook, Twitter and YouTube campaign that urges Saudi women to stop talking and start driving this Friday may force the issue. Women2Drive encourages Saudi women to get behind the wheel in protest of an unwritten "law" that makes them the only ones in the world without the right to drive.
"I can’t understand the fuss," complains Hind, an 18-year-old student from Riyadh who requests that her full name is not used for fear of repercussions for her government scholarship to pursue a degree in Boston this fall. "Can you imagine that before Manal (Al Sharif) drove in Khobar and Najla (AlHariri) in Jeddah, the last women to drive took to the roads in 1990? I really find it hard to believe that we are still even discussing an issue that should have been resolved before I was born!"
However, the attempt to reverse this ban has polarized opinion within Saudi society and even families.
"Personally I am against this whole thing," says Jahan Y, a self-described ‘liberal thinker’ and physician at a government hospital in Riyadh. "I feel that the women who started this enjoyed the publicity and liked the fact that they could get some iconic status because of it."
So, was she against the concept of women driving?
"If there was a decree tomorrow, then I would be one of the first to drive, but I don’t like the way that they went about it. I think it’s wrong to just bring our problems to the attention of the outside world and especially the media. They don’t really care about Saudi women. They just want to sell newspapers. It’s much worse if we do this the wrong way, and then the cause will be set back, like it was during the Gulf War."
'King Abdullah ... will understand'
In a kingdom filled with contradictions, support for the most controversial of causes sometimes comes from the most surprising quarters.
Umm Khaled, a fully veiled grandmother who can neither read nor write and guesses her age to be around 70, lends her backing to the protesters.
"I have to rely on my sons to take me to the hospital for all my appointments and they are working." she says. "I hear that there are women like me in America and outside of Saudi Arabia who can drive cars and nobody stops them. God willing, one day women in my country will also be like them. King Abdullah is a good man and he will understand this."
Would she drive in protest alongside the Women2Drive campaigners if she were able to?
She giggles and then pauses. "People here might talk, and we don’t want trouble with the authorities. But if I were a young woman, then I would do it to fight for my rights and the rights of my daughters. There is nothing wrong in it, because it’s like a knife you can use to cut or to wound. It’s not driving that’s the real issue."
Support among men
The ban also presents challenges to Saudi men, many of whom feel they are being punished.
Take the case of Saeed, a 34-year-old security guard for a private television company. He can't afford to employ a driver on his meager salary of about $1,000 a month and yet has to assume the responsibility of transporting his wife and five children around the city.
"It’s hard, very hard," he says thoughtfully. "I have to work a nightshift, but during the day bring my children back and forth from school and then run regular errands as well."
If the current restrictions were relaxed, would he allow his wife to drive? He grins widely and says, "Definitely. Yes, definitely. There is no shame in that. It would make my life so much easier. My wife doesn’t work and she sits at home all day, so she could be in charge of all those things."
And there may be wider support among men for dropping the ban.
"Most men I know are for it," said a businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It is an economic necessity in two ways: Firstly, we cannot force people to hire private drivers and pay their salaries, which are estimated to be around 2 to 3 billion Saudi riyals per month that is repatriated abroad; secondly, there has been a huge drag on the economy because of the extra trips that have to be made by these drivers. ... I can’t believe we are the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive! What is the big deal?"
So if many Saudi men seemingly are unopposed to their wives and daughters driving, where is the sticking point?
"You would be surprised to know," Hind says with great authority, "that there are many, many Saudi women who want things to remain like this. It’s true that there are some religious scholars who are against women driving, but even girls in my own family, young like me, don’t like the idea. But my point is that they can stay home and use drivers if they wish, but the rest of us should have the choice. We are not forcing every single Saudi woman to go out and drive, so how come they are imposing their will on every single Saudi woman?"