Saudi Women Drive by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

Saudi Women Drive

So what’s the big deal in that? Thanks for asking.

I have been actively spreading the word, giving support and showing my enthusiasm for the Saudi women’s initiative to be permitted to drive their own cars.  I celebrate with them the success of this latest initiate on October 26th which was without government backlash.  About 60 women took to the wheel. None were arrested, detained, fired from their jobs, harassed in the streets, or banished from their communities.  We call that progress. 

But to some this may seem trite. Given a list of the top priorities for reform how does women driving get so high on the list?  There are limits to this effort. First of all, only those who can afford cars are directly involved.  This makes it class specific.  Despite the over whelming wealth of Saudi Arabia and its comfortable GDP, there are poor people. I actually tried to photograph as many women who roll huge carts of sellable goods during the pilgrimage to share how they maneuver in temperature above 100/35 degree, covered from head to toe (literally!) in black, selling their goods, some sitting on the ground, to eat lunch, converse with one other, and bargain hard over the prices of these Chinese trinkets and synthetic clothing.

Saudi Women

So as to issues of poverty and women’s access to resources, is this even relevant?  Likewise, since no woman can get a driver’s license in Saudi Arabia, these women drivers have acquired driver’s licenses in some other countries so doesn’t that mean they are influenced by foreign cultures?

Let me step back and look at this from within a larger context of the global Muslim women’s movement.

In 2009 a global movement for reform of Muslim family law, against unequal policies and archaic cultural practices and attitudes was launched in Malaysia (  250 people attended, mostly women, all active for the cause of Muslim women’s equality in their own countries, of which about 50 were represented.  There were many differences between the participants, but some things united us. All had experienced assault against our human dignity because we were women being blamed on our religion, Islam.  Meanwhile all still held that Islam was both sacred and essential to our identity.

Even now, almost 5 years later, I cannot express how profound that moment was for me.  I have been part of this global evolution/revolution for gender justice in Islam for four decades, including having worked with many of those same women present at the launching.  I had argued that patriarchal interpretations were but one possible interpretation of the sacred text and provided clear and concise evidence that the Qur’an could be read BEYOND patriarchy.  This egalitarian reading of the major text underlying the Islamic worldview—the fundamental source in the development and establishment of the OLDEST legal system still practiced today: Islamic family law—is also an enduring source of inspiration for more than a billion people worldwide—half of them female.  Challenging the patriarchal root of interpretation and cultural practices helped herald in the current iteration of the Muslim women’s movement. It reminds us of one resounding idea: it was not Allah/God who oppresses women or demands asymmetry.  It is the political will and cultural force of patriarchal interpretation.

To be sure, many of my ideas were not new.  However, the circumstances under which they were presented during this current Muslim women’s movement brings greater public attention and are thus harnessed as a weapon in reform movements worldwide.  Furthermore, they provide concrete evidence that efforts for gender equality are not just colonial imperialism seducing good Muslim women away from their “true” religion, culture and identity.  Suddenly, greater awareness of the possibilities of freedom and justice as equality is on the table and there will be no turning back.

To be sure, the Muslim women’s movement at this time is unlike at any other time.  Many of the rights granted to women at the founding of Islam: like right to life, right to private property, right to choose a husband, right to divorce, right to inherit, right to act as a witness in court—along with the most important, ontological right, the right to have an unmediated relationship with the Divine Creator—were revolutionary fourteen centuries ago.  However, women were the beneficiary of these rights with little or no effort on their part.  It was a gift that came with the revelation and the prophethood (The Qur’an says, “We have not sent him (the Prophet Muhammad) except as a mercy for all of the worlds”).

The Saudi women’s drive initiative demonstrates a crucial aspect of the Musawah movement:  Today’s movement is the result of a critical mass of Muslim women demanding justice FOR themselves, articulating the form of that justice, and advocating the terms of it.  Women decide for themselves what justice and equality will look like. They have the right, responsibility and agency to determine how they wish for that justice to be manifest and the terms of its implementation in their own contexts.

In Saudi Arabia, women-driving is a symbol reflecting the intersecting of a number of aspects of the inequality in the name of culture and religion. Although women are (supposedly) prohibited from going out of their homes without male guardianship (i.e. relatives), male drivers are almost all immigrant laborers, who are thus reduced to a status of non-persons.  Otherwise, how else are they allowed to accompany the women alone? (Just like men selling female lingerie, which was prohibited recently.) Certainly there are also implications about competence and freedom of mobility.

In all these, women must choose how their own culture determines their identity, affirms their faith and defines their character. Maybe we cannot support this symbolic act until we throw off the veils of our own western bias.  I am excited when Saudi women drivers are on the move because although it was only 60 women, I remember it was only one Rosa Park who ignited the American Civil Rights movement.  These women herald in the inevitable change in all aspects in the lives of Saudi women.

So, I say, “You drive girl!”

 amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe. 

Categories: Activism, General, Human Rights, Islam, Ritual

Tags: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I read some of the media coverage about this, Amina. I found it very, very encouraging as a woman, particularly living in a western country where Islamic values aren’t widely understood. Let’s hope that the work and efforts by this courageous group will one day result in women being allowed to take driving tests and holding local driving licences. Keep on, keeping on, I say!


  2. I feel empowered by the bravery of these women too, and by the humor of one of their supporters.
    “No woman, No drive” means “Go woman, Go drive.” I do not believe this “drive” for change can be stopped nor that it will stop with liberating privileged women. We can, do, and must empower each other.


  3. Islamic laws and customs seem to be too complicated and arbitrary for me to understand, but I applaud the courageous women of all the Islamic lands for their determination to lead their own lives. That includes driving a car. Yes, you drive, girl!


  4. Thank you for this update. The image of women from beneath their black body veils catching a glimpse of an empowered woman driving a car makes me both : ) and cry. The repression of the natural longing for human agency to do something as simple as driving a car is such an assault on the soul. But this is what progress looks like, one brave Rosa Parks, 60 Saudi women drivers, bravely exercising their human agency and giving others the strength and the courage to dare to do the same.


  5. Permitted by whom. Men have decided to let this one go. Men have decided not to arrest or rape women who defy male supremacy. Men are being well behaved. When half the human race refuses to obey men, we’ll have liberation worldwide. Male supremacy is the law of the land everywhere on earth, it has theme and variation country by country and religion by religion, but the end result is the same. Only the rise of women will change this. So finally Saudi women are rising! Just wait until they really get going.


  6. Amina,
    I agree that what you describe is a step forward for all Saudi women, and probably all Muslim women (because of Saudi Arabia’s central place in the Muslim world). And I agree because history shows that it’s not the impoverished who lead revolutions or reform movements, it’s people who have some time beyond tending to their survival. I’m glad to see that the Saudi government is starting to turn a blind eye, something that will bring our more women drivers next time! “Go woman, go drive!” indeed.


  7. 1) That Saudi women can or cannot drive does not reflect on all Muslim women—many muslims drive cars in many Muslim-majority countries. This is a Saudi cultural practice.
    2) It is the symbolism that is important—not the car driving.
    3) I am not familiar with Saudi Arabia—but, as I understand it…..Saudi has problems with regard to free movement of women—women need to get “permission” from their guardians—so, rather than driving cars—perhaps if these women had rallied for the building of trains and other public transport—it would have resulted in benefit to the whole society instead of just the “elites”. This drive for use of public transport without “permission” would have resulted in the freeing of a whole cultural mindset that restricts women’s autonomous movement—in the name of “protection” …as well as the breakdown of the Saudi practice of gender segregation—not to mention— It would have also been a more environmentally friendly movement.

    I think that focusing too much on “patriarchy” as the “bad guy” makes one lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of (Islamic) empowerment issues

    Why would any rich woman want to drive in the heat of Saudi Arabia if she can get a chauffeur to do it for her?—Unless it is satisfy some egoic “Western” demands of what a woman should or should not do or be….?….even then, if these “foreign influenced” elite women want to drive a car—good for them……perhaps they will eventually get around to using their efforts for the broader good by addressing the core cultural issues causing the problems……everyone has to begin somewhere……


  8. All the rules are for women. No rules for men as they go free and do whatever. Saudi men drink, dance, have expensive cars, planes, and houses. Don’t keep one wife, but have several and treat them like crap. Travel 24 hours. There are so many muslim countries in this world and sadly none of them practice true islam


  9. Shahla Khan Salter just wrote a piece with an interview with Samia al-Moslimany who was one of the drivers. I wasn’t aware of it, but she was arrested. I thought, like Dr. Wadud, no one had been arrested at all.

    One commentator said the protest was symbolic. Maybe yes, it is a visible sign of the other ways in which women are restricted from even what most conservative Muslims would consider rights of women. Samia’s story is a good example of that.


  10. Thank you for all your comments. I was on a ten day silent meditation retreat so not available to go on line and check on things. Now I am moving back to America from India so still limited in my time to respond to any particulars. Just wanted to say.. keep THINKING about healthy change and then get up and contribute to make it happen for all beings in accordance to their well ness


  11. Nice work you have done there amina


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