A Saudi Woman Holds Up a Sign Saying, "Cars Want to be Driven by Saudi Women." Image Credit: Flickr

The spirit of the Arab Spring broke the steel gates of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today as one by one Saudi women started their engines, defying the country’s notorious ban on women driving, the only place  in the world where women are not permitted to drive.

Today’s protest is the culmination of an online campaign that started last month when IT security consultant Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself behind the wheel. She was arrested and jailed for ten days. Her detention sparked an international outcry from rights groups, demanding Saudi’s rulers remove the driving ban on women.

Religious edicts by the Kingdom’s senior clerics claim the ban “protects against the spread of vice and temptation.” In reality the restriction forces families to spend a significant amount of their income hiring foreign drivers.

Chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, Farzaneh Milani explains the real fear behind the ban:

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets-and the right to enter and leave them at will-belong to men…Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector… That is why the women defying the ban on motorized mobility are in fact demanding an eventual overhaul of the entire Saudi political system…These women know the value of a car key.

Indeed Saudi women understand that getting behind the wheel of their cars today has to do with gaining their right to vote, travel and work without the written permission of  a male guardian, and move around their country without a male chaperone related to them by blood or marriage. Saudi authorities should rightfully be fearful because women in the Kingdom are just getting started.

“We want women from today to begin exercising their rights,” Wajeha al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women’s rights activist told the Associated Press. “Today on the roads is just the opening in a long campaign. We will not go back. We’ll keep it up until we get a royal decree removing the ban.”

Milani states that although women driving to defy the ban may seem less dramatic than the demonstrators demanding regime change across the Middle East who are “are facing bullets and batons,” the same principles of self-determination motivate both groups. She points out the story of Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives who commanded an army of men while riding on a camel 14 centuries ago. Milani asks if Muslim women could ride camels then, why shouldn’t they be allowed to drive cars today?

Women across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are wondering the same thing.