Having lived in Saudi Arabia as a young teenager and then again in my early twenties, I was immediately drawn to a news article "Defiant Saudi women get behind the wheel". I often forget what it's like there, even having lived in the country myself, until I read an article like this one.
When my family lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, many of the same laws and religious fatwas existed as they do today, but in general things were a bit more relaxed. As a western teenage girl, it was recommended that I wear the abaya (black robe covering my clothes) and veil, but I didn't always have to. We all knew that whether or not you wore an abaya depended entirely on where you were going and for how long. If you were going shopping in a street market, you'd better wear that abaya and head scarf if you didn't want to be harassed or even beaten; I was never threatened physically myself but I knew of women who had been. On the other hand, if you were going directly to a store with your parents for a quick trip, you could go without the head garb and possibly without the abaya. That is, if you didn't mind being glared at.
My family moved back to the United States in 1986, but they returned to Saudi Arabia in 1992 right after the Gulf War. When I moved there in early 1994, things had changed. There was a shift to the hard right which at the time I didn't understand. On September 11, 2001 of course I did. It was nothing short of a miracle that I was even able to get a visa to enter the country in 1994 as a 22 year old single woman. Although my father was working there, and his company arranged for my visa, a young single western woman was not usually granted entry especially for an extended time. I was thrilled to be able to return to Saudi. I had many happy memories of my time living there a decade before, and I longed to visit the places that meant so much to me: my old school, our house, the city of Riyadh. I missed Saudi Arabia.
As soon as I arrived, I asked my father if we could travel to Riyadh. My parents were then living in Dammam which is quite a distance from the capital city of Riyadh. My father was hesitant and explained to me how hard it would be for him to get permission for me to travel in the country as a single woman. He said he'd have to get special papers allowing me to travel between the two cities as well as documentation proving that I "wasn't a prostitute" as he put it. Even though I am his daughter, I wasn't allowed to share a hotel room with him, and I had to be completely covered the whole trip even during the 4 hour drive from Dammam to Riyadh in the middle of nowhere.
My father did arrange for me to travel with him on business to Riyadh, and I was able to visit my old haunts. I loved being back in that beautiful city. And, it truly is beautiful. I relived so many good memories in that short trip and was grateful for the chance to be there. But, there was also a sadness I had for the changes that had occurred politically. The sense of oppression was palpable to me although I couldn't understand at that time why things had changed so much in 10 years.
Today, however, reading about these brave women getting in their cars, albeit with their husbands as protection, and driving...driving!... something we take for granted every day of our lives...I felt hope that one day the Saudi people will enjoy greater freedom and peace.