When Saudi Arabia started allowing women to drive last month — a historic shift in the last country in the world to ban women from getting behind the wheel — Samah Damanhoori was watching closely from California. The 29-year-old Saudi woman has a lot at stake.
Just a few weeks before the ban was lifted on what was officially known as "Driving Day," June 24, Saudi security officials jailed more than a dozen women activists, some of whom have advocated for the right to drive since the 1990s. In what appeared to be a government-sponsored, front-page smear campaign, Saudi newspapers published the women's names, claiming they were "traitors."
"It's horrifying and it's very scary, what is happening right now," Damanhoori says about the sweeping arrests of activists on unspecific charges. "We still don't know why, why now, we still don't have clear answers."
For Damanhoori, the driving reform — something backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hailed as a progressive reformer by many supporters — signaled that women drivers and women workers might be part of the kingdom's plan to modernize and diversify the oil-dependent economy. But it only went so far: Saudi Arabia's sweeping guardianship rules remain in place. Every Saudi woman is required to have a male guardian — a husband, uncle, son — who makes major life decisions on her behalf, even if she's an adult.
Damanhoori has been speaking out against the guardianship laws from San Francisco.
"Women cannot study, cannot work, cannot even travel without male permission or a male guardian; it's as simple as that," she says.
When she won a Saudi government scholarship for a graduate program at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, her father had to approve her enrollment and her application for a passport. He had to give his consent for her to travel to the U.S. Under Saudi law, called mahram in Arabic, Damanhoori had to have a male relative accompany her to the U.S.
She says her father accompanied her to California to enroll in her courses and gave permission for her to stay on without a mahram, but when he got back to Saudi Arabia, she says, he changed his mind.
She wrote about these events in a memoir for her master's thesis, in which she recounts a call she received from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.:
"'Who is your mahram?' 'My father,' I said. 'Where is he?' 'Home.' 'Hmmm. Well, Samah, you father called us and asked us to cancel your scholarship because he no longer approves you studying here without a male companion. Is there a conflict between the two of you?' 'Not at all. I don't know why he canceled it since he's the one who brought me here and signed I could be here without a mahram.' "
The Saudi embassy did not respond to an NPR request for comment.
Damanhoori decided to stay in the U.S. and cut family ties.
"It was really hard at the beginning, I lost myself, I lost the ability to form a whole sentence," she says, describing those first months after she decided to stay in California against her father's orders. "I came from a very strict country to a very free country."
Her father Sameer Damanhoori, reached by phone in Saudi Arabia, confirmed to NPR that he had canceled his daughter's scholarship.
"That is our custom," he said, referring to the rights that he has under the guardianship laws.
He wants his daughter to come home and forget her education.
Damanhoori's graduate adviser supported her decision to stay in the U.S. and the college helped her find sponsors to pay for tuition and housing. After graduation in 2017, she got a job in high tech.
She has also applied for political asylum in the U.S. Her asylum claim is that the guardianship system puts her in danger.
"My story with my father, and — what would happen if I go back to Saudi," she says, is the official narrative she submitted to U.S. officials.
She claims her father has been abusive.
He denies abusing his daughter, but says if she returns to Saudi Arabia, he will never give permission for her to leave again.
Damanhoori now sees her role as an outside voice for Saudi women's rights. She gives talks in the Bay Area, uploaded to YouTube to reach an audience back home. She's regained her voice, she says.
"The more I spoke up — the more I went in public, all the noises in my head just became lower," she says. "It's really important to speak loud for these women who are being abused, to never give up."
Women's March Global, a New York City-based international organization that helps amplify women's voices, is helping Damanhoori get her message out. The organization has collected more than 200,000 signatures to support the jailed activists in Saudi Arabia and has delivered the petition to the United Nations.
"It's important to understand what's she given up to step into this role," says executive director Lara Stein. "But she understands that she's one of the few people that is able to have a voice, and I think at the end of the day, it's a very courageous move."
Damanhoori recognizes the message of the activists' arrests. New reforms in the kingdom don't include political openings. Critical voices have been silenced. There is still, she says, a long road ahead for women in Saudi Arabia.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Saudi Arabia started allowing women to drive last month. It also detained women who advocated for the right to drive. These mixed signals are being followed closely by a Saudi woman in California who has a lot at stake. She's speaking out against Saudi's so-called guardianship system that places women under the rule of male relatives, a system that could force her to return to the country. NPR's Deborah Amos brings us this report.
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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This was the scene when Saudi Arabia issued the first driver's license to a woman - an official big deal. Cameras whirled. Smiling policemen snapped the moment. June 24 was officially called driving day. Twenty-nine-year-old Samah Damanhoori watched the celebrations from San Francisco. She was thinking about the prominent activist jailed and smeared in Saudi newspapers.
SAMAH DAMANHOORI: Well, it's horrifying, and it's very scary what's happening right now in the country. We're still - don't know why, why now. We still don't have clear answers.
AMOS: To her, it's signaled that women drivers and women workers might be part of the kingdom's plan to diversify the oil economy, but that didn't add up to changing the sweeping guardianship rules, rules that give male relatives control over the lives and actions of even adult women.
DAMANHOORI: Women cannot study, cannot work, cannot even travel without a male permission or a male guardian. It's as simple as that.
AMOS: And now we get to Damanhoori's story. When she won a government scholarship for a graduate program in California, her father, her guardian, had to approve her enrollment, her application for a passport. He had to give consent for her to travel to the U.S. By law, Damanhoori had to have a male relative accompany her to the U.S. It's called a mahram, a guardian in Arabic. She says her father waived the requirement at first, and then, she says, he changed his mind. In a memoir she wrote for her master's thesis, she recounts the call from the Saudi embassy.
DAMANHOORI: (Reading) Who is your mahram? My father, I said. Where is he - home. Well, Samah, your father called us and asked us to cancel your scholarship because he no longer approve you studying here without a male companion. Is there a conflict going on between the two of you?
AMOS: The Saudi embassy didn't answer an NPR request for a comment. When I called Damanhoori's father, Sameer, in Saudi Arabia, he confirmed he had cancelled the scholarship. That's our custom. He explained that male guardianship laws give him that right. He wants his daughter to come home and forget her education. She decided to stay in the U.S. and cut family ties.
DAMANHOORI: It was really hard at the beginning. I lost myself. I lost the ability to just form a whole sentence. I came from a very strict country to a very free country.
AMOS: Her grad school supported her. She now has a job in high tech. She has also applied for political asylum to stay in the U.S. She says her father has been abusive. He denies that, but he does say that if she returns, he will never give permission for her to leave again. Her claim - the guardianship system puts her in danger.
DAMANHOORI: My story with my father - and what would happen if I go back to Saudi?
AMOS: Now she sees her role as an outside voice for women's rights inside the kingdom. She gives talks in the Bay Area uploaded to YouTube to reach an audience back home. She's found her voice, she says.
DAMANHOORI: The more I spoke up, the more I went in public, and all the noises in my head just became lower. And it's really important for us to speak loud for these women who are being abused to never give up.
AMOS: She's now backed by Women's March Global, an international organization that helps amplify women's voices. Lara Stein is executive director based in New York.
LARA STEIN: It's important to understand what she's given up to step into this role. But she understands that she's one of the few people that is able to have a voice. And I think at the end of the day, it's a very courageous move.
AMOS: Women's March Global has collected more than 200,000 signatures to support the jailed activist in Saudi and delivered the petition to the United Nations. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.