Driving Change

Aisha Almana, BS ’70, thought she was at the airport to see her father off. Instead, he led her to the plane and explained that he was bringing her to Egypt because their own country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had no schools for girls.

She was eight years old. Bursting into tears, she asked, “Where is my mother?”

Sheikh Mohammed Abdulla Almana knelt to be eye-to-eye with his daughter. “I don’t want you to be like your mother or your grandmother,” he told her. “That’s why I am taking you to be educated. I want you to come back and help the women of your country.”

With these words, he launched Almana toward a place in history as the mother of Saudi feminism.

Four years later, armed with a sixth-grade certificate of completion, she returned home to Khobar just as Saudi Arabia was opening its first schools for girls. All the teachers were wives of workers from non-Arab countries because most Saudi women were illiterate. Sheikh Almana wanted to set a precedent, so he installed his now-13-year-old daughter as the region’s first female school principal and gave her behind-the-scenes daily advice on how to run the school.

“All of the students were in the first grade, even though many were my age or older,” she says, noting that she worked as principal for one school year and then went to Lebanon to continue her education.

She has since achieved a series of firsts in a wealthy country that still denies women basic rights. To the outside world, she’s best known as a leader of the historic 1990 protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. The protest was Almana’s idea, and it grew out of her experiences as an undergraduate sociology major at the UO.

“The University of Oregon gave me the opportunity to recognize that I am a human being equal to anyone else,” she says. “I am a free soul, and I am my own driver.”

Going to college in the United States was also Almana’s idea. When her father refused to pay for it—but didn’t forbid her from going—she made her own way by winning a scholarship. She arrived in Eugene in September 1968 and found a campus bubbling with antiwar protests and demonstrations for women’s rights.

For a young woman from a kingdom where freedom of speech was unheard of, the notion of civil disobedience as a tool for social change represented an entirely new way of thinking.

“It was an eye-opener, this idea that you have the right to express yourself and you can differ with others, but it doesn’t mean you are enemies,” she says.

However, she credits her awakening as an activist to a demonstration of a different sort. On her first day of classes, a professor greeted students by placing a jar of pebbles on a table and pronouncing it full. Then, he closed the door and started taking off his clothes.

“I was shocked,” she says, her eyes still widening at the thought of it 45 years later.

She hardly had time to absorb that it was a trick (he was wearing another layer of clothing) when the professor dumped sand into the jar. Was it full now? he asked. Almana thought so, but next he poured in water, which settled into crannies hiding between the rocks and grains of sand.

“This affected me tremendously,” she says. “He showed how what you see is not the reality, and things can change.”

Things can change.

In that spirit, Almana and 46 other women summoned their courage and met at a Safeway parking lot in Riyadh 25 years ago this November 6. They piled into 14 cars, formed a convoy, and drove sedately through the busiest part of the city. On their second lap, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice reported them, and came with the police to arrest them.

All the women—drivers and passengers alike—were thrown in jail. In mosques across the kingdom, imams denounced each woman, by name, as immoral. Their passports were confiscated. Those with government jobs were fired. Fortunately, Prince Salman, who became king in 2015, intervened so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of religious extremists. Eventually, their passports and jobs were reinstated.

“It was worth it,” Almana says. “We made a statement about the right to drive our own lives.”

Nevertheless, the driving ban still holds, along with a host of other restrictions. Women cannot interact with men. They must obtain written permission from their male guardians—and a chaperone must accompany them—every time they want to go anywhere or do anything outside their homes or workplaces.

The endless taboos range from financial (women can’t open bank accounts without their husbands’ approval) to impractical (they can’t try on clothes while shopping).

Almana says research indicates the exceptional mistreatment of Saudi women stems from misinterpretation of Islam, cultural differences between nomads and city dwellers, and US foreign policy decisions that backfired. “They thought they were fighting communism and they ended up with Al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and Khomeini,” she says.

A devout Muslim, Almana began reading the Koran as a child, and she says it teaches that women and men are equal.

“At least two clergymen have come forward to say their research found nothing in the Koran to require guardianship, yet hundreds of regulations require a guardian’s permission,” she says. “We discovered that most were created by civil servants, based on their personal or tribal traditions or beliefs, without having any basis in Islam.”

Change is slow, but Almana sees signs of progress. More than 56 percent of Saudi college students are now women. Polls show a majority of Saudi men favor letting women drive. In August, for the first time in history, Saudi women began registering to vote.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that she directs the largest group of hospitals in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, which borders the Persian Gulf, the authorities arrest Almana at least once a year. “My poor husband always has the burden of being told to try to control his wife,” she says with a gentle laugh. “They don’t know that he married a woman who cannot be controlled and cannot be owned.”

Suddenly tears well up in her warm brown eyes. None fall, but her voice becomes heavy with grief.

“Do you know,” she asks, “that in Saudi Arabia, a husband or a guardian is not punished if he intentionally kills his wife or his daughter? A father beat his five-year-old daughter to death because he suspected her of sexual activity.

“He could kill her because he owned her. This is what we want to change.”

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications