In some areas of the country, the penalties for those that break the laws are severe, such as getting arrested, fired from your job, and flogging. When university student Ashwaq al-Shamri drove an ill man to safety, she had to have understood the risks, yet decided that losing a life was infinitely worse.
While on a bus home in the northwestern city of Hail, al-Shamri and her female classmates were told by the bus driver that he felt dizzy. Moments later, he stopped the bus and collapsed, suffering a stroke.
Thanks to a rural upbringing and a father with a more progressive view on women’s rights, al-Shamri had been taught to drive at a young age so that she could help with the farming, despite Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers. With help far away, she had to think and act quickly while also taking a chance.
"Me and my colleagues got out, carried him and sat him in the back of the bus. They tried to give him first aid and I drove to the nearest shop on the agricultural road to get him cold water," al-Shamri told local newspaper Okaz.
With the nearest hospital miles away, al-Shamri said she decided the best course of action was to get the man to his family who lived nearby. They were then able to rush him to hospital where he has made a full recovery.
"I’m extremely proud of my daughter, whom I taught driving at my farm when she was young,” al-Shamri’s father, local schoolteacher Zahir Al-Shamri, told reporters.
Galvanized by the Arab Spring, Saudi women and their allies have been working toward changing the country’s views and policies on women. The online campaign #Women2Drive is one such movement and has helped further the conversation on lifting the driving ban for women.
Last year, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal stated that he wanted an "urgent" overturn of the ban.
“Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity,” he said in a letter posted on Twitter. “They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”
In another step forward for women in Saudi Arabia, on April 17, 2017, King Salman issued a ruling that loosened some of the country's notorious strict male guardianship laws.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to women's rights, but these powerful male allies are necessary, and any step toward equality in a country as rigidly sexist as Saudi Arabia is important progress.
Al-Shamri's decision to defy her country's sexist laws to save a man's life is no small thing. One thing about sexism (and all other forms of prejudice for that matter) is that however a woman acts is reflected onto her entire sex. In patriarchal societies, womankind is often judged as a whole by the actions of individual women.
Al-Shamri and her classmates are great examples of strong Saudi Arabian women.