As It Happens

'I am so happy': Activist reacts to end of ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia

Wajeha Al-Huwaider thinks Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction, after King Salman issued a royal decree that will allow women to drive.
Wajeha Al Huwaider received international media attention in 2008 when a video of her driving in Saudi Arabia was posted on YouTube. (Photo courtesy of Wajeha Al Huwaider)

Story transcript

On Tuesday, in Saudi Arabia, women won a hard-fought battle to get behind the wheel. King Salman issued a royal decree that will soon allow women to drive. His kingdom had been the only country in the world where women are banned from driving.

The decree ordered the formation of a ministerial body to give advice within 30 days and then implement the order by June 2018, according to state news agency SPA.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider has fought for women's rights in Saudi Arabia for years. In 2008, she defied the law and posted videos on YouTube showing her driving a car. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to her on Tuesday while she was in Beiruit, Lebanon.

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Ms. Al-Huwaider, what is it like to hear the news that women will soon be able to drive in Saudi Arabia?

I am so happy. I got so excited. I was sitting in this restaurant and then telling everybody who didn't know me, "You guys, did you know what happened? We are going to drive! Women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia!" and they were looking at me, going, "What are you saying?"

So I am really, really happy at what happened. I was expecting things like that, because (with) the new king, we've been hearing good news every now and then. I think the country's moving in the right direction.

Do you think King Salman is getting much pushback from the clerics?

Of course. That's to be expected. But you cannot please everybody. But that's the right decision, because it's not fair what happens to women. They have to pay a lot of money to have private drivers, and some of them, they have to stay home because they cannot afford to have a driver. And they don't get good income from jobs.

Saudi Arabia has been widely criticized for being the only country in the world that bans women from driving, despite ambitious government targets to increase their public role, especially in the workforce. (Photo courtesy of Wajeha Al Huwaider)
So if you want to improve the situation in a country, you have to give that right to everybody — to move freely, to find a job, to contribute. 

I know you represent a lot of different causes and fights you have had for women's rights. But in this particular one, for driving, why was the (former) Saudi king so against women getting behind the wheel?

I think in the beginning, when cars came to the country — even when bicycles came to the country — they thought women can't handle it. It was too much for women. 

But they contradict themselves. Women, in the old times, before cars, used to use whatever was available — like horses, camels for bedouins. They used to move freely.

But when cars came, they thought, this machine should be handled by men. Then religious (authorities) made it forbidden. But actually it has nothing to do with religion at all.

Where are you going to go on your first outing in a car?

I have my son, who is driving me around. (But now) I can drive myself. I have my own car. So maybe I am going to go to work. Finally, I can drive from home to work, on the road and in the city. Because I drive everywhere except in the city. Women can drive in the desert, and in closed compounds, but finally we are going to drive in the real streets — in the city. So maybe I'll just go to work.

You can listen to our full interview by selecting 'Listen' above.

A Saudi woman gets into a taxi at a mall in Riyadh as a grassroots campaign planned to call for an end to the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia in 2014. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)