DUBAI - Two years after Wajiha
al-Huwaidar defied a Saudi ban on women driving by
posting a video on the Internet showing her
cruising in a remote area, she still dreams of
getting behind the wheel like her other Gulf
Huwaidar's brazen act on International Women's
Day 2008 was a symbolic gesture in the
ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where
women's rights lag way behind those in other
nations in the oil-rich Gulf.
"I'm still dreaming of driving," the women's
rights activist -- whose 2008 You Tube video
registered some 190,000 hits -- said in a
Unlike other Arab Gulf women, Saudi women still
face an uphill struggle to gain political and
social rights and need the consent of male
guardians for almost everything, including
obtaining a passport and travel.
They are also forced to cover up from head to
toe when in public, and due to strict segregation
rules their work opportunities are severely
Huwaidar is confident however that women will
get into the driver's seat.
"Driving is going to happen during King
Abdullah's time. Maybe this year," she said,
adding that the 85-year-old monarch "wants to make
The reign of the reform-minded Abdullah has
produced many changes since he ascended the throne
in 2005 -- including last year's unprecedented
nomination of a woman, Norah al-Fayez, to a
He also inaugurated in September the kingdom's
first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah
University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
The role of Saudi women was celebrated again in
January when King Abdullah gave doctor Khawlah
al-Kurai a top medal in recognition of her
research work to fight cancer.
"There has been a clear and strong political
drive aiming to allow mixing between genders...
which would open many doors to women," said female
lecturer at King Saud University, Hatoon al-Fassi.
But Fassi noted that because of the strict
rules of segregation at the university, men and
women academics cannot meet face-to-face but "over
"I don't feel any clarity in the future of the
Saudi woman," she said.
In other Gulf states, women are ahead in terms
of political participation and freedom.
In Kuwait, women gained the right to vote and
stand for election in 2005 and made history in
2009 when four female lawmakers were voted into
"These rights did not come easily. They were a
result of action, and a demand movement," said
Kawthar al-Jawaan, the head of Kuwait's Women
"The country and the society are open," unlike
in Saudi Arabia, she said.
The Kuwaiti constitution guarantees personal
Women in the United Arab Emirates, who stick to
the traditional dress code of a black abaya cloak
topped mostly with a loose head cover, have also
made great strides -- and can cruise in fancy
There are two women cabinet ministers in the
UAE and several others hold top posts in
government departments, amid an apparent official
drive to push them to the forefront of
"The (country's) leadership has been
supportive," said Emirati political science
lecturer Ibtisam al-Ketbi.
"Apart from Kuwait, getting rights in these
societies tend to take the form of grants that are
initiated by the leadership," she said.
Bahraini women, like their Kuwaiti
counterparts, can dress as they wish and are
represented by one woman in parliament.
Qatar does not have an elected parliament but a
woman is part of the government in the gas-rich
Oman was the first Gulf Arab country to give
women the right to vote and run for public office
But regardless of their achievements, said
Ketbi, Gulf women, like most of their Arab
sisters, are still "immature" when it comes to
citizenship rights because they cannot pass their
nationality to children born to foreign fathers.