SAUDI ARABIA: Claiming Our Right to Drive
On June 17, Saudi women have chosen to collectively take the wheel despite a nation-wide ban against female drivers. According to World Pulse correspondent Farona, the collective action couldn't come soon enough.
Today—June 17—women across my country will drive through the streets in what may be the largest act of defiance against Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers. Last night a few women revealed through social media the locations where they plan to drive, exposing themselves to possible arrest.
In 1990, during the height of the Gulf war, 47 women drove around Riyadh in the last major protest of the ban. I was one year old at the time. Some of the women were arrested and a few lost their jobs. They were widely characterized as immoral, and the male members of their families were deemed 'failed men,' unable to control the women of their homes.
Now in 2011, Saudi Arabia is still the only country that bans women from driving, and the same arguments still dominate the debate. Inspired by changes sweeping throughout the Middle East and North Africa, women in my country have unearthed our buried dreams yet again.
This time we are much stronger. Saudi women’s rights activists have been building a campaign for months, calling on women to begin driving on June 17. I have been inspired watching young women join with older activists like Madiha Ajrousha, a psychotherapist and one of the drivers arrested in 1990. Ajrousha is now using social media for her activism—a tool that wasn’t available to her 20 years ago.
As the energy around this campaign grew, so did efforts by authorities to stop it. On May 21, Manal al-Sharif was arrested after posting a video online that showed her driving with her brother and his wife as passengers. She did not violate the ‘guardian law’. She did not violate the dress code. She did not violate the traffic law. A woman driving a vehicle is not considered a legal crime, but a moral crime. The traffic police called on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices police to escort al-Sharif for questioning. She was released and then re-arrested the next day.
Al-Sharif, a 33-year-old IT consultant and single mother, is one of the organizers of the June 17 'Women2Drive' initiative. She was released from detention the second time only after she signed an affidavit declaring she would cease participation in the campaign.
But her message is already out. And today, despite the threat of arrest, many Saudi women intend to start driving on their own.
The Road Ahead
As the first woman in Saudi Arabia to achieve her high level of IT certification, Manal al-Sharif is an example of the recent success of girls’ access to education. It was once taboo to talk about educating girls in our country. Now women surpass men in higher education, excel in many areas, and enthusiastically give back to our community. Today’s arguments against women driving are frighteningly similar to the arguments of previous decades against women’s education. I have grown up listening to excuses like, “If women are allowed driving today, tomorrow they will ask for nightclubs.”
I do not have any brothers, and our family cannot afford a driver or maid. My dad has driven all six women members of our family throughout our lives. We all coordinate our schedules and adjust them according to my father’s availability. It’s a daily ritual in our family. Since my sisters got married three years ago, the pressure has lessened, but my father still drives my sisters whenever their husbands are unavailable. Although I enjoy my dad’s company, it sometimes becomes a source of tension in the family. I like that men in Saudi Arabia share responsibility in running a family, but I hate to see my father—who is in his late 50s and works fulltime—having to drive us around everywhere. . . .