The woman who drove a Saudi revolution

From kidnapped at seven to a legend at seventy, the Saudi woman who refused to sit in the back seat.

Dr Aisha Almana behind the wheel of the car she drove in 1990

“Finally! It’s happening!”

When news broke in October that King Salman was finally ready to let Saudi women into the driving seat, large swathes of the female populace rejoiced at the long-awaited victory. For a certain group of women, the sense of victory was personal.

Dr. Aisha Almana, affectionately known as the Mother of Saudi Feminism, has been fighting this battle for half her life. Hers was the second in the parade of 47 vehicles to be driven through the streets of Riyadh in the now legendary driving protests of November 1990.

“We were all sacked from our jobs, banned from travelling […] it was a horrendous period.” Public retaliation was swift and brutal. Branded whores and immoral women, the participants were denounced by name in mosque pulpits and public leaflets nationwide. It has taken almost three decades for the death threats to dissipate, the stigma to subside and the

Kingdom to soften its views.

She was just seven years old when she was ‘kidnapped’ by her

own father.

Born in 1948 in Al Khobar, Dammam, when the city was but “a single street with a few houses,” Dr Almana’s ascent to the Forbes List of Most Powerful Arab Women seemed an improbable outcome. But like many things about Aisha, her upbringing was not entirely conventional.

When she was just seven years old, she was ‘kidnapped’ by her own father. Educated in India, Mohammad Al-Mana had been exposed to different ways of life, and importantly, to educated women. So it was that he noticed a particular spark in one of his daughters.

Given the absence of formal schooling for girls in the region, he expressed a desire to send Aisha away to school. The rest of the family were horrified, and demanded the young child be kept at home.

One day, he asked for Aisha to accompany him to the airport as he left on a business trip. Little did the young girl realise the suitcase he was carrying contained her own clothes and possessions.

“I was in tears, I was crying that I wanted to go home.” Dr Almana says of the moment she realised what was happening. She begged to be allowed to go home to her mother and grandmother. But her father would not yield.

“He knelt down in front of me and he said, “I don't want you to be like your mother and grandmother. I want something else for you.” With these poignant parting words she was boarded onto a plane bound for Egypt, where she was to complete her elementary education.

When she returned, schools for girls were opening their doors in her home town, and he urged her to get involved “so that other women wouldn’t feel the stigma of studying or working in schools”. And so, with all the prestige of an elementary school certificate, she became the first female school principal in the Dammam region.

Every day when the schoolgirl-headmistress returned home, Mohammed would review her work and offer guidance and encouragement for the next day. Their daily meetings would invariably include the question, “Today, what did you do for the women in Saudi Arabia?”.

This phrase became a mantra in her life, and one that never left her, even after her father passed away.

“I just stopped the car and said to the driver, "You go back. I'm taking over.”

But the turning point in Aisha’s life, from (often unwilling) educational pioneer to full-blooded activist arrived unexpectedly during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

“I worked in Riyadh. I used to travel there by car, and one day […] I saw an armed convoy from the American army. And these big trucks, they were being driven by ladies.”

It was at this moment she says, that she grasped the injustice of her situation. “I looked at it and I said to myself, “This lady, she's coming here, to my country. She is driving a car and having her freedom, and I'm sitting in the back seat with my driver.”

A sense of smouldering resentment at such blatant double standards was a common reaction. What Aisha did next was not. “I just stopped the car and said to the driver, "You go back. I'm taking over." I got in the front seat and I drove from Khobar to Riyadh.” No one stopped her on the four-hour journey. “When I arrived there, I just told everybody that I had driven.”

In the capital, she joined with other budding female activists including Madeha Aljroush and Hessa Al Sheikh, to mastermind the now legendary 6th November protest of 1990, when the group reigned over the roads of Riyadh for some thirty minutes before being stopped and arrested.

“They made us promise that we wouldn’t do it again. But you know, they never said anything about bicycles…”

Despite the public backlash, Aisha refused to back down, often dreaming up innovative ways to circumvent the restrictions placed on her, “They made us sign so many papers promising that we wouldn’t do it again, that we wouldn’t drive and so on. But you know, they never said anything about bicycles…"

Unfortunately a hip injury put an end to any dreams of a ladies Tour de Riyadh, but not to her involvement in the campaign. She has driven various times in the Kingdom, lobbied, spoken internationally, and now written a book about the movement.

At home, most evenings find her glued to her smartphone, following the latest developments, arrests and triumphs. And dishing out advice to the new generation of activists.

Young activists like Loujain Al Hathloul, famously arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges following her attempt to drive across the UAE-Saudi border in 2014. “They always have good ideas and good feedback,” she says of Aisha and the rest of the 1990-clique. “They also have the connections we don’t have […] They are able to push where we can’t.”

Many have questioned why Aisha has kept pushing. Now the director of a major hospital group, she is not without the means to keep her own driver or manage her own transport. Some have labelled her unpatriotic, a trouble maker, even an attention seeker.

But Aisha insists it was not an issue she could keep quiet about. “I don’t like driving!” she confesses, but "women, anybody—if they are not mobile, they cannot develop.”

Unrestricted mobility she argues, is critical, “if you want to go to a library, you want to go to school, you want to go to work […] there are women in this country who cannot get their basic human necessities, getting help, medication, health, getting to the hospital, collecting their children.”

If King Salman makes good on his promise, then the wheels of that mobility should start turning in June 2018, when the ban is set to be lifted.

Does this victory mean Aisha will be retiring from public activism? “Actually, if I could change one law, it would be the guardianship,” she says, referring to the system of male guardianship by which Saudi women must have the permission of a male relative to conduct activities such as choosing a husband, or travelling abroad.

Now that Dr. Aisha has earned her place in the front seat, it seems safe to say she’s there to stay. Guardians, beware.

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