Najla Hariri drove on the streets of Jeddah in 2011 to do her family chores.
This is a translation of my April 20, 2012, O Globo column:
The winds of change were blowing in Saudi Arabia long before the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and I'm seeing this mostly in the streets and shops of Jeddah. Last year a handful of women at the wheel of cars drove through the streets of several cities of this conservative and sexist kingdom. They filmed themselves doing it, and posted the resulting videos on YouTube for the world to see, but mostly so that other Saudi women could see that, yes, women can drive a car, and the world did not end.
I went to the house of one of these women in Jeddah. Najla Hariri, 48, mother of three children, had lived for 25 years outside Saudi Arabia. She told me she got two driver's licenses — the first in Beirut, Lebanon, and the other in Cairo, Egypt. Back in the kingdom now for two and a half years, she repeatedly found herself forced to take to the wheel to get a child to school, or to buy food and medicines. "We have a driver, but sometimes he or my husband were busy with other things, and I found myself needing to drive my car to do my chores," said Hariri.
She estimates that she drove at least 20 times last year, and that all who saw her behind the wheel gave signs of support, smiling, honking and giving her the thumbs up. But Saudi police, unaccustomed to seeing women driving, were annoyed: "I was stopped three times by police. The first two times, they released me, and they even said that they supported what I was doing and that they wanted their wives and sisters to drive in the future.”
"But the third time," Hariri told, "My car was surrounded by three police cars, and the sergeant insisted that I go to the police station with them." Her husband was called to the police station and she was released. A month and a half later, both were summoned by a public prosecutor and pressured into signing affidavits that they would not repeat the alleged infringement. "I signed because I did not want to trouble my family," she said. There is no law that forbids Saudi women from driving. Nor is there any passage in the Holy Qur’an about it. "This ban on women driving is based on Saudi traditions and nothing more,” she said.
Unable to drive for now, Hariri is now focusing her efforts together with a group of women around the country — linked by Twitter and Facebook — on the issue of male guardianship which every woman in the kingdom is submitted to. “For me this is the key issue for our independence and freedom as women,” said Maha Akeel, a journalist and writer. “To do anything from opening a bank account, traveling abroad, to undergoing certain types of medical operations or even work, a Saudi woman needs the written approval of her male guardian,” Akeel said.
In practical terms, this means that a woman must have her father’s permission to marry, work and travel, among other things. When married, she needs the permission of her husband to do all these things. If widowed or never married, and her father has passed away, the woman becomes the hostage of a brother or an uncle.
While Saudi women face the challenges of living in an ultra-sexist society that infantilizes them, universities have produced a steady stream of female graduates, but with little hope of employment. This has generated an enormous social pressure to find jobs for these women, and the government is finally responding to the situation, letting them work in shops as saleswomen.
Just recently, I was approached by a saleswoman in a Jeddah perfume store offering to show me the latest in men’s fragrances. Just two years ago this would never have happened because only men were allowed to work in sales, even in lingerie stores for women. But a Saudi woman, outraged at having to give her intimate measurements to male store clerks, started a campaign on the Internet a few years ago to only allow women to work in lingerie shops. The government responded and a royal decree banning men from working in lingerie shops was enforced this year. A spillover effect has been felt in perfume shops that cater to both men and women. Now, even in supermarkets most cashiers are Saudi women, usually covered from head to foot in black abayas, with only an opening for their eyes.
These are positive signs for Saudi society, but much remains to be done. If Saudis remain steadfast, the country will be on a path of justice and freedom for all, regardless of gender.