Monday, May 23, 2011

Saudi women are being driven to rebellion

Nesrine Malik

The driving ban in Saudi Arabia does little to actually protect women, it is merely a backward, pre-emptive act of repression

While all eyes are on Libya, Syria and Yemen, a different kind of rebellion is taking place in Saudi Arabia. A group of Saudi women have set up Women2Drive, a right-to-drive campaign, with a launch date of 17 June.

Last week one of its members, Manal al-Sharif, took to the streets and drove a car for a couple of hours, filming her trip (her father assisted) and posting it on YouTube. On Sunday, she was arrested along with her brother, who reportedly has now been released.

This isn't the first time that there has been a push to drive in the kingdom. In the early 1990s, members of a similar campaign were arrested and some were fired from their jobs.

Against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings, it might seem like a frivolous thing to ask, especially when we are told that Saudi women do not need to drive, as they are so covetously protected and provided with drivers to save them the trouble.

The irony is that although the entire system is constructed to prevent men and women finding khalwa, or privacy, together, it is permissible to be alone in a car with one's non-Saudi driver – the perfect confluence of racism and patronage that exposes the absurdity and confusion behind arbitrary laws of public female deportment in Saudi Arabia.

There is nothing empowering or protective about not being allowed to drive. While I was living in Saudi Arabia, in a family of five females with no man in the household, we were permanently at the mercy of our driver to run even the most basic of errands.

If he was late, indisposed or unable to tend to us for some reason, the only alternative was to hail a taxi – a very unpleasant prospect for a woman in a Saudi city. To stand on the side of the road in the city of Riyadh waiting for a taxi to arrive meant braving the harassing calls and jibes from passing motorists, and to be alone in a car with a cab driver in a country where that is rather rare posed its own risks in terms of the liberties the driver feels he may be entitled to take. Sharif herself claimed she was harassed by her driver. Needless to say, there is no public transport available for women.

Those who espouse a moral position, ie that should these women be allowed to drive they would run amok and go wherever they please putting themselves in harm's way and making rendezvous with men, are either disingenuous or naive.

Most of the employed drivers in Saudi Arabia have no say over where they go, they merely do their mistresses' bidding. I remember being given a ride with a Saudi female colleague who ordered her driver to chase, at high speeds, the cars of men whom she found attractive or who had tried to pass their numbers through car windows. The driver haplessly complied, and was told off in strong terms for not catching up with the quarry.

This law is simply a backward, visceral objection to the thought of a woman behind the wheel, a physical embodiment of a volition which is too offensive to enact. It is about maintaining some semblance of control, the erosion of which it is thought would be complete if women were allowed to drive.

There is this odd view of women in the kingdom as being always on the cusp of dissolute behaviour – reminiscent of an attitude towards slaves who would rebel and murder their owners if not kept perpetually oppressed. This is a ghastly spiral, where the worse the victim is treated, the worse they are likely to be pre-emptively repressed. When arguing against allowing women to uncover their heads or faces in public, some (men and women) respond that if that if this were to pass, women would surely walk around in semi-nudity.

It doesn't occur to these people that public codes of dress do not exist in most other Arab countries, and women still manage to dress in a culturally appropriate way. Women are allowed to drive throughout the conservative Arabian Gulf, and these societies have not imploded in moral degradation.

The Saudi driving ban is a social, rather than political, issue, over which the authorities would rather not incur the religious establishment's wrath or create controversy. But if there is one lesson Arab rulers would do well to heed, it is that withholding rights raises the chances of an explosion of dissent.

The arrest of Sharif certainly appears to have done nothing to dissuade the Women2Drive campaign from going ahead; if anything it seems to have garnered it more publicity. There are reports that the religious police are teaming up with traffic forces to patrol and stymie the campaign. If these are to be believed, then Saudi Arabia is in for a first-of-its-kind confrontation on 17 June.

SAUDI ARABIA: Security forces clamp down on those allegedly behind campaign to defy ban on women drivers

Saudi Arabian authorities have clamped down on women's rights activists after a bold call by a group of women in the ultra-conservative kingdom on social media sites on the Internet to break a ban on women driving.

Saudi police arrested at least two people linked to the campaign and shut down a Facebook page meant to promote civil disobedience, according to the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper the National.

Saudi security forces loyal to King Abdullah, whose family has ruled the kingdom for 80 years, arrested Manal Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, and her brother, the National reported.

On Facebook and Twitter, activists had launched a campaign calling on women in Saudi Arabia who hold international drivers' licenses to get behind the wheel on Friday, June 17, and drive their cars to protest the country's ban on women driving.

Their call is a daring initiative. Women who have defied the ban in the past have lost their jobs, been banned from travel and denounced by members of the country's powerful extremist religious establishment.

The women say their planned move is not a protest nor an attempt to break the law, but rather a bid to claim basic rights as human beings.

"We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves," read a statement posted on the group's Facebook site, I will Drive Starting June 17, before Saudi censors took it down. "We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driver's licenses and we will abide by traffic laws."

Their Facebook group had garnered more than 11,000 supporters and around 3,000 people follow the group's account on Twitter.

Critics say Saudi, a staunch U.S. ally and largest exporter of oil in the world, has a horrific record on human rights and women's liberties. In addition, it's said to be pumping cash into global Islamic organizations that promote extremist Islamic thinking across the Islamic world, including the nascent democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.

But some Saudis themselves are trying to challenge the conservativism of their own country.

On recent incident suggests things are already heating up on the women's ban driving issue. A few days ago, 30-year-old Saudi housewife and mother Najla Hairiri told Agence-France Presse how she drove her car in the streets of the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah for four days before getting stopped.

She took the decision "to defend her belief that Saudi women should be allowed to drive" and said she wasn't afraid of being hauled into detention for flouting the driving ban because she felt she was setting a good example for her daughter and other young Saudi women.

"I don't fear being arrested because I am setting an example that my daughter and her friends are proud of,'' she said, adding that she also offers driving lessons for women.

Below is a video clip showing Saudi women's right activist Wajeha Huwaidar driving her car in a rural part of the kingdom on International Women's Day in 2008 and talking about the problems that come with not letting women drive in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict interpretation of the ultra-conservative Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. Aside from being banned from driving, Saudi women face a myriad of other restrictions. They cannot travel on their own without getting authorization from a male guardian, cannot receive an education without male approval, and are not allowed to cast ballots in municipal elections -- the only kind of elections that currently exist in the absolute monarchy.

If the call for defying the driving ban on women materializes on June 17, it will not be the first time women in Saudi Arabia will have gotten behind the wheel and taken to the streets in protest. On Nov. 6, 1990, a group of women drove through the streets of the Saudi capital Riyadh before getting pulled over and stopped.

Several of the women reportedly lost their jobs and were denounced as by powerful religious figures.

Recent comments by Saudi religious clerics about the June 17 campaign suggest the sight of women driving in the streets will go down with the religious clergymen as badly as it did in 1990.

Saudi cleric Mohammed Nujaimi told Bloomberg News that the women's plan was “against the law" and that driving does “more harm than good” to women, because they might intermingle with males who are not their relatives, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants.

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Insurgents stormed a major Pakistani naval base in Karachi — setting off a prolonged gun battle with security forces. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility saying it was revenge for the U.S.-led military raid that killed Osama bin Laden.