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Time races at such frenetic speed for Loujain Alhathloul that she has to scratch her head when asked about her age. “I think 28 but I’m not sure. Since I turned 25, life has moved too fast, or maybe it’s time that has moved too fast,” she says.

It’s not the only surprising answer I receive from one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. When I ask about the 73 days she spent in juvenile jail in 2014, after daring to drive, her eyes light up and she says it was “enriching. A unique opportunity to meet women who are not acknowledged.”

She was disappointed to receive a royal pardon following King Salman’s 2015 accession to the throne. She had just started to gain the trust of other inmates, many of them poor, unmarried women who’d had sex with men. “I loved the experience, I don’t regret a moment of it.”

A few months ago, the new Saudi monarch, whose son and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is bent on bringing the kingdom into the 21st century, answered the calls of Alhathloul and her fellow activists. He granted women the right to drive as of next year, ending the awkward status of Saudi Arabia as the only country on earth to institute a ban. Alhathloul had been expecting the decision.

“Saudi Arabia was transforming and polishing its image and what do you know about Saudi Arabia except that women can’t drive? We could all see the decision coming but we couldn’t predict the date.” She was jubilant but forbidden from expressing her joy: the authorities had warned her to keep quiet, perhaps because the king and crown prince alone were to take credit for the historic change. On Twitter (where she has 305,000 followers), Alhathloul wrote only one word: “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to God). Even for that she was later admonished.

And yet, the driving campaign is an important victory for women’s rights this year and a rare success for activism in Saudi Arabia. In an absolute monarchy, where freedom of expression is restricted and social or political organisation prohibited, the small disparate group of women who agitated for the right to drive, over more than two decades, prevailed. Lifting the ban on women driving may not have been the most urgent demand of a majority of women, but it was a symbol of their plight: in Saudi Arabia, women are not only hidden from head to toe behind black shrouds and segregated from men, they are also treated as second-class citizens.

Although there was no written ban against women driving, clerics — to whom the royal al-Saud family had until recently ceded control over society — had long seen it as a red line. Their excuses were laughable. Women’s “intellect” shrunk when they went shopping, thus having an impact on driving skills, some claimed; others argued that women’s ovaries were distorted by driving, threatening their ability to have healthy children.

The objective of campaigners such as Alhathloul was to counter the clerical nonsense by raising awareness among women and encouraging them to demand their rights. By 2013, a year of great momentum in the campaign, women were filming themselves driving, and sharing videos. “It was huge. Even in villages women were driving and sending videos… women realised they needed to drive,” she says. A government that had long claimed Saudi society wasn’t ready for the change was proven wrong.

When I meet her at a restaurant in London, Alhathloul exudes confidence, sitting upright, her face uncovered. Her activism, she tells me, began with a search for identity. As the daughter of a family from Qassim, one of the kingdom’s most conservative regions, Alhathloul had grown up in a relatively socially liberal family and, as a child, lived for several years in France. Her father, a navy officer, has backed her campaign, filming her the first time she defied the ban.

It was a single sentence she read on Twitter, the most popular social networking site in Saudi Arabia, that launched her journey as a campaigner. “It all started in 2012 with an app called Keek, which only allows you to shoot 30-second videos. I was curious about what other Saudis upload and I would go on Twitter to see the reactions of others to the videos. One woman I followed said, ‘Saudi women are stripped of their identity.’ That phrase touched me. I come from a privileged family… I felt responsible for breaking that cycle.”

Alhathloul set about asserting her identity through Keek, shooting videos of herself that showed her hair uncovered and revealed her tribal name, ensuring she could not be dismissed as a Saudi living abroad looking to impose western values on the kingdom (she was studying French literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver at the time). “It was real and people could acknowledge my existence.” She was an instant hit: some of her Keek clips were viewed by as many as five million people. Driving, she argued online, would unlock the liberation of Saudi women. “By preventing mobility, you prevent empowerment, and you prevent women taking care of themselves. That’s key to independence.”

Activist Manal al-Sharif defies the ban by driving in 2013

A group of campaigners took notice of Alhathloul’s growing influence online and asked her to join them. They were part of a second wave of activists that includes Manal al-Sharif and Wajeha al-Huwaider, following in the footsteps of the women who had launched the first organised campaign for the right to drive in the early 1990s. “Everything we do in Saudi Arabia is on an individual level or small collective work, and with a lot — a lot — of personal risks. I wanted to take part in the campaign, of course I did,” Alhathloul recalls.

She published a video using the campaign slogan, ‘Women’s Driving is a Choice, not a Requirement’ (the phrase is partly aimed at reassuring conservative Saudis that no women would be forced to drive if the ban was lifted). “I said, ‘If you didn’t have a chance to participate in the 1991 campaign, now is your chance to take part in the movement.’ I think that clip reached 30 million views.”

Criticised for calling on others to take risks while she sheltered in Canada, Alhathloul packed her bags and returned home. She landed in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on October 21 2013, two days before the campaign was to launch, and met her father at the airport. He handed her his car keys and filmed her while she took the wheel. “That’s when I became a figure of the movement.”

The day after Alhathloul’s rebellion, no one came for her. Instead, her father was called in by the ministry of the interior and asked to sign a pledge that his daughter could no longer use his car. She was furious. “I was not acknowledged. My attempt to create an identity had failed.” Despite the campaign, by the following year, there was no change and momentum was fading. Alhathloul decided to escalate the issue.

Loujain al-Hathloul photographed in London © Nina Manandhar

By then she was working in Abu Dhabi and driving freely with a locally issued licence that also had stamps from all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which include Saudi Arabia. The licence made no mention of gender. So a week after her wedding in 2014 (to stand-up comedian Fahad Albutairi), she enacted a plan that she kept secret from her husband and parents: she drove the three and a half hours across the desert to the Saudi border and demanded to be let in. 

“I arrived at the border on November 29, went to passport control… They didn’t know what to do with me.” It took 26 hours before word came back from the interior minister himself: either turn back or face arrest. For the next 73 days, as courts argued about whether she should be charged under terrorism laws for undermining national security, she waited in a jail in Eastern Province.

When she came out, she was asked to sign a pledge saying she would not speak out about women driving. She consented but added a qualifier — she would not speak out “in videos”. “It didn’t restrict me to Twitter,” she says cheekily. She continued to campaign online — but never drove again on a Saudi street.

Since the king granted the right to drive, Alhathloul has shifted her energy towards other demands. She now lives in Abu Dhabi, where she is studying for a master’s degree. But she won’t give up on campaigning. In fact, she is gearing up for a new campaign targeting male guardianship over women, which requires them to seek male consent for all sorts of activities, such as obtaining a passport and travelling. The king diluted the requirement this year but Alhathloul says nothing has really changed. “You need a male to get you out of prison even when you’ve served your sentence,” she tells me. “Male guardianship is the issue for women.” 

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s deputy editor

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