Will Saudi women be able to drive soon and be as happy as this woman?
FED UP with constantly having to rely on husbands, fathers or brothers to drive them around, women in Saudi Arabia are once again pushing for the right to drive, writes Rasheed Abualsamh
THE arrest of the young, divorced mother of one, Manal al-Sharif, on May 21 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for driving without a license on the streets of Al-Khobar, instantly turned her into the poster-child for the movement to allow women to drive in the kingdom. Dubbed the “Rosa Parks of Arabia”, after the woman who led the civil disobedience campaign in the American South of the 1960s to desegregate public buses that forced blacks to sit only in the back, Al-Sharif was released after 10 days in the Dammam prison and promised to stop her campaign to allow women to drive.
Saudi Arabia has the unfortunate distinction of being the only country in the world that bans women from driving. The debate on whether to allow women to drive or not in the ultra-conservative kingdom has been raging for several decades, but recently received a boost when several Saudi women began driving in different cities, filming themselves doing so and posting the videos on YouTube.
Al-Sharif was one of these women, and the 31-year-old security analyst for the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, was made to pay the price for her agitation.
Activists had previously recently started a new campaign to allow women to drive and formed a group on Facebook called Women2Drive, which attracted 2,792 supporters online. The group is calling for all women who have foreign or international drivers licenses to drive their cars on June 17, at whatever time and place they like on that day.
Opinion was split on whether or not Al-Sharif’s driving and subsequent arrest was good or not for the movement.
“Manal’s arrest sure helped publicize the case locally and internationally. This by itself made the organizers of the campaign feel more confident rather than being intimidated by their comrade’s arrest. The fact that the National Women’s Council in Ireland is calling for a demonstration in front of the Saudi embassy in Dublin on June 17th is extremely encouraging to Saudi women,” said Ebtihal Mubarak, a Saudi journalist based in New York.
Ali Alyami, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said that Al-Sharif should have waited until June 17 and driven her car with other women in order to have a bigger impact.
“While I believe that her passion to advance women’s right to drive is genuine, her fascination with herself and illusionary self-assurance that she could be spared the wrath of the Saudi regime’s brutal policies toward women if she praised herself as a patriot who loves her king and country, proved to be wrong. Had she mobilized more supporters and waited until June 17, the outcome could have been more positive.”
Another Saudi woman, Najla al-Hariri, also drove her car on the streets of Jeddah recently and posted videos of herself driving on the Internet. She has two driving licenses, one from Lebanon and one from Egypt, from when she lived abroad, and she was luckier than Al-Sharif in not having been arrested.
“The days that Manal spent in jail will definitely help support our demand to be allowed to drive, because it is our right and necessity,” said Al-Hariri in an interview with the Weekly. “If more women start driving and posting videos of themselves doing so on YouTube, it will make the concept of women driving normal and acceptable.”
The first protest by Saudi women driving on the streets of Riyadh took place more than two decades ago when a group of around 20 women drove around the capital for around an hour on Nov. 6, 1990, before being stopped and arrested by traffic police. Their male guardians were subsequently made to sign undertakings that these women would never drive again, and the women had their passports confiscated and were suspended from their jobs. Only more than year later were they allowed to return to their jobs and had their passports returned. Thousands of pamphlets naming them and their husbands, and calling them “whores” and “pimps”, were widely distributed across the city outside mosques and other public places.
Two decades later and leading Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, have insisted in interviews over the past few years that they support the right of women to drive, and that the issue is a social one and not a religious one. Indeed, there is nothing in Islam that prohibits women from driving, and in fact women in rural areas have been known to drive pick-up trucks. Yet a shrill vocal minority has repeatedly lashed out at allowing women to drive, using a 1991 fatwa (religious edict) issued by Sheikh Abdulaziz Bin Baz, that said that allowing women to drive was “haram” (sinful) as it would encourage the mixing of the sexes, to bolster their stance. This has turned the whole issue into a hot-button issue that has divided Saudi society. Endless debates have been held over what would happen to women if they had accidents with their cars; would a female traffic police force need to be formed and how would men deal with women who had flat tires?
Many critics of this informal ban on women driving have pointed to the economic drain on Saudi families who are forced to hire a virtual army of foreign drivers to drive their female members around. Estimates of how many foreign drivers work in Saudi Arabia vary wildly from 250,000 to 4 million, and with no official statistics, it is hard to tell. But go to any Saudi shopping mall at night and you will see rows of foreign drivers sitting outside waiting for their female employers.
Nevertheless, many Saudi women simply cannot afford to employ a driver to transport them around, especially those who work as teachers in government schools.
“The average monthly salary for women is now less than 1,000 riyals. A university graduate is lucky to get 3,000 riyals a month. The average cost of a driver per month, including salary, visa, and iqama renewal, is 2,600 riyals. How are women to afford this all?” asked Jamelah al-Anqari, a university student.
To add insult to injury, there are some women who insist that they do not want to drive and are quite happy to be driven around. A group of them recently sent a petition with 1,000 signatures to King Abdullah asking him not to allow women to drive, and even started a group on Facebook for their cause, which was later removed by the site’s administrators.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of social anthropology at King’s College in London, and the author of “A History of Saudi Arabia”, believes that many Saudi women do not want the right to drive, as they fear that irresponsible men in their families would then put the burden on them of driving everyone around.
“Some women don’t want to be allowed to drive because they don’t want to become the family drivers while men sit sipping tea and chatting to their mates. Women already carry all the burdens of the family while the husbands think if they work and provide financial support, they should be relieved of all other responsibilities. In Saudi Arabia, we have a crisis of masculinity not femininity. Absentee husbands and fathers, who abandon women and children in the pursuit of second and third marriages, are a real problem,” said Al-Rasheed.
So the question remains of how should women organize and push for their right to drive? Saudi officials, unaccustomed to public demonstrations and a robust civil society, are horrified by the thought of Saudi women driving in protest through the streets en masse.
Saudi Shoura Council member Dr. Zuheir al-Harathy told the Asharq al-Awsat daily that driving through the streets was not the correct way for women to press for their rights.
“Driving cars on the streets in order to impose their demands on the law represents a provocation to the official authority. This method may be flashy, but it does not provide a solution,” he said.
But Saudi women have grown tired of waiting for men to take up their cause and allow them to drive, and the Women2Drive organizers have announced they will go ahead with their protest on June 17.
Yet many Saudi women doubt that this alone will be enough to change the situation, and believe that more needs to be done to achieve their rights.
“Saudi women need to organize themselves. Teachers should form unions; medical doctors need an association, etc. This is the only way they can change the situation. Imagine if all women teachers go on a strike? The schools will not run and the authorities will have to respond. Simply going for a drive is not going to work. Writing petitions to the king is not going to work. We have done that and we have reached a dead end. The truth is that rights are taken and not given. We need a peaceful civil disobedience movement,” said Al-Rasheed.