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Yes, you should care if Saudi women can drive

Updated on June 26, 2018
Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.


It's not just about driving

Put aside all the jokes about women drivers.

Saudi Arabia has the highest vehicle mortality rate in the world, and until this week only men drive in the Kingdom..

Put aside thinking the rest of the world is really like America to one degree or another.

It's not.

Saudi Arabia is the home of the two holiest cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina. It is the most conservative country in the Arab world. Women there are not only restricted from driving. They may not go out of their homes by themselves. They may not uncover their faces, even in their own homes if an adult male is present who is not their father or husband. I knew a woman who sat at her dinner table with her veil held to hide the side of her face so only her father, who was seated across from her, and her husband, who was seated next to her, could see her face while she ate.

No woman of any nationality may enter the Kingdom unaccompanied by a male relative or sponsor. My mother-in-law's plane arrived earlier than we expected, and she was detained in a room by herself until my husband arrived to claim her. Being American made no difference. Interestingly, an unaccompanied western woman may leave the Kingdom by herself.

A divorced woman has no right to her children. A married woman has no protection from her husband marrying a second, or third, or fourth wife. I taught English in a women's language school, and my student's (mostly middle class) greatest fear was their husbands would become successful enough to marry a second wife. Oh, yes, and a man can divorce his wife at any time for any reason.

So what does all this have to do with driving?

Driving is a start.

A few women in Saudi Arabia attempted driving their own cars in 1990 in response to learning some women and children were abandoned by their male relatives when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. The response to that effort was the killing of some of those women by their families. The response to those killings? None. (Princess, by Jean Sasson)

The official response in 1990 to the demonstration for allowing women to drive? King Fahd elevated the custom to the status of a law forbiding women to drive. In 2008 KIng Abdallah, while promising reforms in his country, said he would change the law against women driving the next year. The rest of the world paid no attention and he didn't do it.

Women drive in Kuwait. Women drive in Egypt. Women drive in Dubai. It is not an Arab issue. It is not a Muslim issue. It is a Saudi issue.

Driving means a woman can decide for herself where she wants to go. It means she will uncover her face in public. Most of my students were devout Muslims. They just wanted to see at night without stepping off a curb and twisting an ankle. They didn't want their sons telling them to cover their faces when they left the house. What does it say to a boy as young as six years old when he can tell his mother to cover her face?

I lived in the Kingdom from 1990 to 1994. Before Desert Storm western women had lived in Saudi for 20 years with only an unofficial dress code saying they would cover their arms down to their elbows, wear skirts that covered their knees, and not wear tight clothing that showed any of their figure. Nobody cared beyond that. By 1991 western women were being advised to wear the abaya (the black choir robe type garment) to avoid conflicts with the Mutauah (religious police). When we complied we were then advised to cover our hair with a scarf. When we complied some western women with dark hair and eyes were advised to cover their faces because the religious police might mistake them for Arab. In a souk (shopping area) one evening a Mutauah asked my husband why he didn't leave his wife at home? My husband asked if he meant back at our villa or back in America? The Mutauah just smiled.

When my students saw me coming to class in an abaya and scarf, they asked me how things would ever change for them if western women gave in to the demands of the KIngdom? That was in 1991.

Teach Me To Drive So I Can Protect Myself is a Facebook page with 18,000 supporters. A men's version was also posted encouraging men to beat any woman they see driving. Beating women in the Kingdom is not against the law: any woman, anywhere, for whatever reason. Still think this issue is just about driving?

Khaled al-Nowaiser of The Arab News recently wrote:

"The issue of women driving has been debated for decades and no action has yet been taken. The answer always seems to be that Saudi society 'isn't ready'. What exactly does this mean? What does society need to do to be ready so women can drive themselves in the kingdom?
"Likewise, the ability of women to work, travel and live normal life has been restricted in order to please extremists in the country and sadly at the expense of our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. This is wrong because Saudi Arabia will never progress without the real and full participation of women. The issue must be decided politically."

The systematic denial of basic rights to women is the major cause of poverty worldwide according to The Center for Democracy and Human Rights. There is a direct correlation between a country's prosperity and how they treat women. Saudi Arabia may be the exception that makes the rule. For the most part, thanks to oil, they are not poor. But a woman there has no right to medical care, education or physical safety beyond what the man in her life allows. She can't even drive herself or her children to an emergency room.

Driving is just a start. And we can help. We can pay attention.


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      This week the law changed, but let's see what happens. Saudi Arabia has few if any traffic laws. Foreigners are usually charged with an accident for no other reason than: If you hadn't been here, this wouldn't have happened! I suspect women drivers will face similar accusations when involved in an accident.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      This issue is in the news again. It is about a great deal more than just a woman getting behind the wheel of a car.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      AB: I so respect your point of view, and I'm glad to hear of positive changes in the Kingdom. My experiences are 20 years old. I hope for better days for my sisters around the world and those in my home, America. My best to your family.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      When I read how my country is viewed I feel misunderstood as a Saudi woman. I will not say that everything that is mentioned is not true but I will say that it is incorrect generilzation. Not every Saudi woman goes through these experiences, in fact many live their lives according to their own will. They are supported and encouraged to be leaders. They are educated. They can travel without obstacles. They can work without being abused. They are not killed for having different thoughts. I don't want to stop discussing the issues that face women whether in Saudi or any other part of the world. We all need to support each other and there are women in my country that appreciate the united front...Just please do not generalize.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      poetryman6069: You said it! It kills me when women news anchors make light of things like women driving in Saudi. They have no idea the influence they could have if they just gave some thought to what they say on TV! Thanks for commenting.

    • poetryman6969 profile image


      6 years ago

      What really frightens me is how few western women stand up and protest when someone mentions instituting Sharia law or Sharia courts here. Unless you got your burqa handy ladies you ought to recognize the threat. As odious as we western men are, we are not the REAL enemy. Any one who knows what honor killing or female mutilation are and where these practices are common should be able to figure out who the real enemy is.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Ladies: Thanks for the comments. Keep those poor girls and our sisters around the world in our prayers.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Hi Kathleen, Thank you for mentioning the girls kidnapped in Africa. The same mentality and devaluing of a person because of their gender. And what better way than not to allow education and to separate them from their loved ones and all that they know. It's horrible to think of what they must be going through.

    • Nancy Owens profile image

      Nancy Owens 

      7 years ago from USA

      I agree! These women have been repressed for far too long!

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile image

      Kathleen Odenthal 

      7 years ago from Bridgewater

      great hub Kathleen!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      So glad to see this particular Hub getting a lot of attention and focus. Just sent it through FB, which is not particularly good for serious articles, but we'l see. Theresa

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you Cyndi10. Those 200 girls kidnapped in Africa just haunt me - what they are no doubt suffering. I hope we are paying attention.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      This is so powerful. Anyone who does not pay attention doesn't understand how subjugation of another group of people - whether gender, religious or race - diminishes the whole. I am forever amazed and always have a difficult time wrapping my head around that kind of thinking. And you are so right, driving is just the example because it is a demonstration of free will.

      Well written.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Absolutely. The Saudis call themselves the keepers of the holy mosques. So glad this hub was helpful and welcome to my hubs.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      7 years ago from Philippines

      Thank you for this wonderful hub. I read earlier today about the driving protests, but the context that you put it in is very revealing, in that it is indicative of going far deeper than being able to drive. I didn't know that Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia. Do you think the government feels it should be more conservative because of the presence of these sites? It's so sad and ironic that this wealthy nation is so backward in the way it treats women.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks, ladies, for your comments and for sharing this hub. It's funny, but history shows countries that mistreat women do not succeed as societies compared to countries that give women every opportunity. anupma: Welcome to my hubs!

    • anupma profile image

      Dr Anupma Srivastava 

      7 years ago from India

      Excellent hub. One of my Muslim friend told me all this. Saudi women don't have any right. Really it is ridiculous. Why do people treat women as commodity, why don't they think that we may have our desires and wishes. In fact we are not animals...

      Great Article. . .

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      As always Kathleen you are ahead of the curve as this was recently in the news! Your piece here to so relevant, fact filled and interesting. I hope it is passed all over the internet! I have pinned and shared it.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • carter06 profile image


      7 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      This is an excellent hub Kathleen and brings light to an important thought provoking topic..

      It so isn't just about driving is it?? Giving power to powerless women is vital..I worked with a young Arab girl here in Australia some years ago whose dad spat in her face and pulled her home by the hair from down the street at the shops..humiliation, oppression, violence for some woman is a continuum unless someone speaks up..good job Kathleen will def share & tweet this..cheers

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Carolyn: You are so right about the definition of culture. Besides which, you look at every "culture" on the planet and the ones most unproductive are those that oppress women.

      Thanks for the Ups and Sharing.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      7 years ago

      I'm very glad to see you speaking out on this issue. The excuse "well, it's their culture" is too often used by the dim and intellectually lazy. It's not culture. Culture is language, music, poetry, art, dance. Oppression of women is not culture. Hopefully through education and awareness things will change. Upvoted and shared on FB.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Marcy: Thanks for adding so much to this conversation. Oh, yes, I remember the days when beating your wife was the subject of many jokes! It all goes back to the idea that I have the right to treat you any way I choose because I matter more than you do. These women are learning that they DO matter.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      7 years ago from Planet Earth

      This is a very thought-provoking article, Kathleen - you have had some amazing experiences. A few women in my mother's generation could not drive, and I remember one, in particular, who was controlled by her spouse. It was 'benign,' not abuse in the harshest sense, but because she could not drive (and this was in the USA, where that is crucial to mobility), she had a more restricted life. She once told my mother how fortunate she was to have had that freedom.

      Even in the USA, we are not that far removed from the days when spousal abuse was considered a 'domestic' problem, and one that the police would avoid addressing. The 'rule of thumb' phrase actually comes from a law that more or less said it was okay for a man to beat his wife with a stick the size of his thumb. This issue goes back to the first civilizations, and is still happening in many cultures.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wow, ladies! Thanks. I've been out of town and came back to all this wonderful support. For more insight into the world of these women, let me modestly recommend to you my latest book, My War, about my experiences meeting these extraordinary women in their own culture. Yes, the Quran quote is true. The Prophet also said men would be judged by how they treated the women in their lives. You don't hear that one much!

    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      @iguidenetwork- all religions - all the major world faiths anyway say in one way or another that men are superior to women- including Christianity. This is not an Islamic issue but a cultural issue.

    • iguidenetwork profile image


      7 years ago from Austin, TX

      I've known about Saudi Arabia as extremely limiting in terms of women's rights. If they are seen alone on the streets or driving alone they could be undeservedly called as whores. It just shows that how lowly their society treat them, and it's sad.

      Probably religion has something to do with it... the Koran has said that "Men has superiority over women because God has made the one superior to the other."

      Interesting article, thanks for posting...

    • point2make profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a very impressive and informative hub. Thank-you for your efforts in tackling this issue. The rights of women "everywhere" should never be negotiable. The rights of Saudi women must be recognized at least by the west. If the west gives the government of Saudi Arabia a pass on this issue then shame on us. Women are not property and we must never forget that fact when we are faced with political decisions when dealing with these nations. If we compromise our principles for "oil" or "wealth" on this issue then women all over the world lose!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      7 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      It is shocking to think that these women are so at the mercy of their men. Also shocking is that the rest of the world considers this of so little importance. Voted up and sharing.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 

      7 years ago from UK

      I had no idea things were so severe in Saudi, and because I'd read that they had pledged to reform the driving laws I think just assumed it had happened. This is a very informative and important hub.

      Sharing it, and tweeting.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      7 years ago from California

      This is such an important hub---and I am sharing it everywhere I can

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia


      Saudi Arabia has published its first advert intended to discourage domestic abuse against women and children.

      The image, which has been backed the King Khalid Charitable Foundation, features a close-up of a woman wearing a niqab, with one of her eyes visibly bruised.

      The advertisement’s text reads: “Some things can’t be covered – fighting women’s abuse together.” Reports of violence against women in the Saudi Arabian press are frequent, with the perpetrators often being husbands or other family members.

      Females in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from taking up employment or leaving the country without a male guardian’s permission, while driving is banned altogether.

      In recent years though there have been indications that absolute monarch King Abdullah has pursued a reformist agenda in terms of women’s rights.

      In 2011, it was announced that women would be permitted to vote and stand in municipal elections from 2015, while in January 2013 30 women were appointed to the country’s legislative Shoura Council. It was also recently announced that women would be allowed to practice law in a professional environment.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I was prompted to reshare this hub because of this link my daughter sent me:

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Theater girl: Welcome to my hubs and you started with an important one. "There but -" is exactly the point!

      phdast7: Didn't think you'd missed a one of mine, but I am glad a person who moves in your circles is sharing this hub. There is a window of opportunity for these women and those of us in the West need to make sure that window doesn't get slammed shut!

    • Theater girl profile image


      8 years ago from New Jersey

      This is very powerful and although I knew some of it...very illuminating. We need to stand up for them. There but for the grace of God and all....

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      How in the world did I miss this well-written and important Hub? I would have been sharing it constantly. This is a powerful and moving account of a country, led by its political and religious leaders, that deliberately encourages and permits the control, restriction, abuse, and unfair punishment of an entire class of people - women. This is barbaric, medieval, unthinkable in the 21st century. We should and can be the voice for these women who are denied a voice. Thank you for writing this. Sharing.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      9 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks Binaya! Never had a friend in Nepal before! Cool.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Sometime back I saw a driving license of a Iraqi woman that contained a veiled photograph. I was held aback by the status of women in Islamic countries. Since then I have taken interest in Islam and the Holy Koran. This is a very useful Hub.

    • Auntie D profile image

      Auntie D 

      9 years ago from California

      Very interesting article. I didn't realize Saudi Arabia was so controlling. I wasn't aware of the Women2Drive campaign and will do a search to learn more about their efforts.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image


      9 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      Good luck with this page; i think the men must be afraid to treat women like this- afraid that a woman can do more and better


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