Banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia find allies online

On Nov. 30, 25-year-old Loujain Hathloul drove more than 200 miles from Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to the al-Batha border crossing. She intended to cross into her home country of Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from operating a vehicle.

Hathloul live-tweeted the trip and uploaded a short video on route explaining her journey’s purpose:

“This is Loujain Hathloul,” she says in the video. “I’m driving in a car that I own, with an Emirati driver’s license, in an attempt to continue the #woman2drive campaign.”

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Saudi Arabia’s staunchly conservative interpretation of Islam—and subsequently the Kingdom’s leadership—prohibits women from driving, citing moral degradation and licentiousness. It is the only country in the Muslim world where the ban exists.

True to form, Hathloul was detained by Saudi authorities upon arriving at the Kingdom’s borders. According to the AP, guards at al-Batha confiscated her passport and held her in her car at the border for 24 hours. A friend, Maysa Amoudi, 33, arrived the next day to deliver food, water and a blanket to Hathloul. Though Amoudi hadn’t intended to cross the border, she was arrested too.

Hathloul’s last tweet, dated Dec. 1, reads “I have been at the Saudi border for 24 hours. They don’t want to give me my passport, nor will they let me pass.”

News of Hathloul’s arrest spread quickly online. That tweet was retweeted 4,000 times, and the video she uploaded on route to the Saudi border has been watched close to one million times. Over the last 30 days, the hashtag #??????_????_???????, or Loujain Hathloul arrested, has been tweeted close to 535,000 times. As activists in the ongoing campaign to combat Saudi Arabia’s driving ban, Hathloul and Amoudi have become online celebrities, combining for over 355,000 Twitter followers.

In wake of the arrests, the Oct. 26 Campaign, which has fought the Kingdom’s ban for over a year, has launched a petition urging the Saudi government to release Hathloul and Amoudi.

Despite warnings from at least one Saudi cleric that driving negatively “affects the ovaries,” Oct. 26 activists have successfully encouraged hundreds of women to post videos of themselves driving to YouTube.

After being detained at the border, Hathloul and Amoudi were transferred from al-Batha border crossing to the Bureau of Interrogation and Prosecution in the city of Hufuf. Activists reported to Human Rights Watch that Saudi authorities are holding Hathloul at a juvenile center for girls and Amoudi in the al-Ahsa Central Prison.

Neither know whether they face criminal charges. On Dec. 7, their detention was extended for an additional 25 days, and may go for another 25 after that. Because the ban prohibiting women from driving in Saudi is decreed by religious fatwa and is not technically constitutionally binding, the legal processes facing both women remain unclear.

But it holding Hathloul and Amoudi is supposed to act as a deterrent, it isn’t working. On Saturday, Dec. 13, six other Saudi women were held for driving into Saudi in solidarity.

In a statement on the arrests, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said “After years of false promises to end its absurd restrictions on women, Saudi authorities are still arresting them just for getting behind the wheel. The Saudi government’s degrading restrictions on women bring shame to the country, not the brave activists standing up for their rights.”

Hathloul may have more online supporters than anyone else who’s flaunted the Saudi ban, but she’s hardly the first. The campaign against the Saudi driving ban dates to the early ‘90s, when dozens of women were arrested for circling the Saudi capital of Riyadh in cars. Many women were jailed for a day and had their passports confiscated. Some lost their jobs.

The Saudi ministry of interior has not responded to the arrests, though as early as 2008, King Abdullah said a day would come when women would be allow to drive in the Saudi Kingdom.

There’s no telling just when that date will be. But as more and more women share their attempts online, maybe it will come a little sooner.