Saudi women drivers spark Iranian social media buzz

Ordinary Iranians have taken to social media in response to Saudi Arabia's reforms allowing women to drive. Many compared the emergence of women's rights in Saudi Arabia to the sluggish growth of Iran's women's movement.

The royal decree announced in late September permitting women to drive in Saudi Arabia has drawn a lot of attention on Iranian social media. And many Iranians say the step forward for women's rights in Saudi Arabia shows how stalled the women's rights movement in Iran has become. 

Ultraconservative Saudi Arabia is Iran's regional rival and the only country in the world to ban women from getting behind the wheel. The order allowing women to drive is to be implemented from June 2018.

One Facebook user, Sherli Shamsian, posted her congratulations to Saudi Arabian feminists. "Following years of struggle by women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to drive. I hope one day women will have the same rights as men across the world, particularly in Muslim Arab countries."

Other Iranian social media users directed attention toward leaders of the women's movement in Saudi Arabia. One of the most prominent figures is Manal al-Sharif, a leading Saudi women's rights activist and mastermind behind the "Women2Drive" campaign.

In 2011, al-Sharif became famous on social media after releasing an eight-minute video in which she drives illegally through the city of Jeddah. She was harassed and jailed as a result and launched the Women2Drive campaign afterwards.

Iranian women's rights taking a back seat? 

Protest gegen das Frauenfahrverbot in Saudi-Arabien Aktivistin Manal Al Sharif

Manal al-Sharif was arrested in 2011 for driving in Saudi Arabia in protest

Iranian social media was also full of commentary against Iranian conservatives, whom critics blame for obstructing the women's movement in Iran. There was also praise for the growing dynamism of the women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia.

Parinaz Etesam posted on Facebook that Saudi Arabia was pulling ahead of Iran on social issues. "As of next year, women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and even before, they were allowed to enter sport stadiums. My question for Iranian nationalists is how can you find a pretext now to deride Saudi Arabia? Because on many issues, it has left us behind."

Another Iranian Facebook user said Riyadh was now a flag bearer for current women's rights reform.

Ehsan Fathi posted on Facebook saying that Iran should follow Saudi Arabia's example. "Saudi Arabia appointed its first female spokesperson, Fatimah Baeshen, for its embassy in Washington, hours after women were granted the right to drive. Tehran should take Riyadh as a role model for democracy."

On the other hand, some users view the reforms with suspicion. Amir Ebthaj tweeted, "Let's wait and see if the reforms in Saudi Arabia remain as small as Umm Kolsum's show on TV, or if the rights of Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and the people of Yemen will also be respected."

Related Subjects

A Facebook user named Soheyla Ariya posted, "If today Saudi Arabia allows women to drive or to go to stadiums, our women enjoyed a hundred times more freedom and dignity half a century ago."


1955: First school for girls, 1970: First university for women

Girls have not always been able to go to school like these students in Riyadh. Enrollment at the first school for girls, Dar Al Hanan, began in 1955. The Riyadh College of Education, the first higher education institution for women, opened in 1970.


2001: ID cards for women

At the start of the 21st century, women could get personal ID cards for the first time. The cards are the only way for them to prove who they are, for example in disputes relating to inheritance or property issues. IDs were only issued with the permission of a woman's guardian, though, and to the guardian instead of directly to the woman. Only in 2006 were women able to get IDs without permission.


2005: End of forced marriages - on paper

Saudi Arabia banned forced marriage in 2005, but marriage contracts continue to be hammered out between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride, not the bride herself.


2009: The first female government minister

In 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female minister to Saudi Arabia's government. Noura al-Fayez became the deputy education minister for women's affairs.


2012: First female Olympic athletes

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow female athletes to compete on the national team for the Olympics for the first time. One of them was Sarah Attar, who ran the women's 800 meter race at the 2012 Olympics in London wearing a headscarf. Before the Games, there was speculation that the Saudi Arabian team might be banned for gender discrimination if they didn't allow women to participate.


2013: Women are allowed to ride bicycles and motorbikes

Saudi leaders allowed women to ride bicycles and motorbikes for the first time in 2013 — but only in recreational areas, wearing full Islamic body covering and with a male relative present.


2013: First women in the Shura

In February 2013, King Abdullah swore in the first 30 women to the Shura, Saudi Arabia's consultative council. This allowed women to be appointed to these positions, soon they would be allowed to actually run for office...


2015: Women can vote and get elected

In Saudi Arabia's 2015 municipal elections, women were able to vote and run for office for the first time. By contrast, New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. Germany did so in 1919. At the 2015 Saudi polls, 20 women were elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy.


2017: First female head of the Saudi stock exchange

In February 2017, the Saudi stock exchange names the first female chairperson in its history, Sarah Al Suhaimi.


2018: Women will be allowed to drive

On September 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that women would soon be allowed to drive. Starting June 2018, they will no longer need permission from their male guardian to get a driver's license and won't need their guardian in the car when they drive.


2018: Women to be allowed in sports stadiums

On October 29, 2017, the country's General Sports Authority announced that women would be allowed into sports stadiums for the first time. Three previously male-only arenas will soon be open for women as well, starting in early 2018.

Sarcasm and skepticism

The Saudi social reforms also drew sarcasm on Iranian social media.

One tweet read, "The moves by the Saudi king will lead to strokes among Iranians! They have to slow down! We are accustomed to taking one step forwards and three steps backwards! That's the way reforms should take place."

Massimo tweeted, "The way that Riyadh has outpaced us in social reforms, I guess we have to take part in the lottery for going to Saudi Arabia in few years."

Kalantar also tweeted, "With all these things happening in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran has to do all it can to encourage the Haj pilgrims to return to the country. I assume all of them want to take asylum in Saudi Arabia!"

Some Iranian users have believed that the social stage in Saudi Arabia is still not set for such fundamental reforms and expressed concerns that hardliners pose a serious threat when it comes to implementing changes.

One Iranian user denounced men's aggressive attitude towards women drivers in Saudi Arabia and said reforms take too long in the heavily patriarchal Saudi society.

Rose Maryam posted a video of a female driver being beaten up by men and wrote, "Cultural change is key for any reforms. When the social stage is not set, freedom will be of no avail."