Driven to fight for Saudi women’s rights

Samia El-Moslimany, an American woman who has lived most of her life in the Middle East and has dual citizenship in Saudi Arabia, was detained by Saudi police while participating in a driving protest in October. Women are prohibited by custom, but not by law, to drive in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

 A quick trip around the block in Saudi Arabia landed Burien resident Samia El-Moslimany in jail — and put her at the forefront of the women’s rights movement there.

It was late in the day on Oct. 26 when Samia El-Moslimany decided to take a drive through the streets of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The sun was already low, casting shadows on the high walls that surround houses there, and stores were just beginning to open for the evening.

“I was nervous … it’s just very weird to live in the same place for 30 years and not have driven. But when I started being followed by the police informants I got very rattled.”

El-Moslimany was one of more than 60 women who got behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia last month in protest of a ban on female drivers in that country — a prohibition she says not only restricts women’s freedom of movement but is also a violation of human rights.

She almost didn’t drive that day. She couldn’t find anyone to go with her. And legal complications, connected to a separation from her husband of 30 years, had her wary of risking trouble.

But as her Facebook feed filled with videos of defiant women parking at the grocery store and taking their kids to doctor’s appointments, El-Moslimany says she felt compelled to act.

“It’s the only country in the entire world where women are prevented or supposedly banned from driving, and I think that it’s only through taking a stand together that we can (change) it.”

There had been only a few stops and no arrests of drivers that day. El-Moslimany figured it would be a “piece of cake” — that she’d be back and posting her own uneventful driving video within the hour.

But when she turned onto the main arterial by her house, an SUV pulled up behind her, the men inside waving their arms at her to stop. She lost them momentarily, but unsure of what to do next, she pulled into a parking lot.

That’s when she saw police cars, lights flashing, headed her way.

“They asked if I had been driving … I said, ‘Yes I’ve been driving.’ They asked for my ID and I handed them my Washington state driver’s license.”

(Video by Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

El-Moslimany tells the story while driving again — this time in her Honda pickup through the streets of downtown Burien. Her father, originally from Egypt, was employed by Boeing but also worked as a professor abroad, meaning El-Moslimany spent her childhood split between the United States and the Middle East.

That international lifestyle followed her into adulthood. When she married a Saudi man at 20 she began a new life in her husband’s country, setting up a photography business and starting a family. Now she’s a dual U.S. and Saudi citizen, with homes in Jeddah and in Burien.

El-Moslimany’s Washington state driver’s license didn’t get her anywhere with the Saudi police. She and another female driver were escorted to the police station, where they were made to sign a pledge promising that they wouldn’t drive again “until the time women are permitted to drive.”

Despite this experience El-Moslimany says she feels more compelled than ever to help fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She says she has no intention of breaking the pledge she signed to not drive. But she’s excited to see women in Saudi Arabia driving every day in the past month, just making it “part of their normal routine.”

After our drive around Burien, El-Moslimany’s kitchen is piled with sacks of potatoes in anticipation of a Thanksgiving dinner for more than 100 people (she’s hosting many visiting Saudi Arabian students for the holiday). She tries to downplay her role in the action, despite media attention around her arrest.

“I’m not a leader in this movement, I am a cog,” she says,

But it’s clear she’s still fighting.

Just this week she received an email from her now-estranged husband reminding her about the ticket she received for driving without a license. If she doesn’t pay, the amount, about 500 riyals , or $150, will double.

She may not be driving in Jeddah again soon. But she says she won’t be paying that ticket either.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

1 Comment

  1. Awesome! Her mom, Ann El Muslimany, was one of the delegates who went with me to the Niger Delta in 2005 with Global Citizen Journey!

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