Commentary

Saudi Arabia Debates Right of Women to Drive

Middle East In Focus

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In Saudi Arabia, an old debate on whether women should be allowed to drive or not has resurfaced after a Saudi woman, Manal al-Sherif, intentionally defied a ban on women drivers by driving and then posting a video of herself on YouTube. She is also behind the Women2Drive campaign aimed at doing away with the driving ban. Al-Sharif was arrested and later posted bail pending adjudication of her case. Her action and that of Najla al-Hariri, who also defied the ban by driving around Jeddah for four days, has spurred various responses in Saudi Arabia and the region. More important, a movement is afoot now to have women in Saudi Arabia begin driving themselves on June 17.

According to numerous reports last week, “Najla al-Hariri, a housewife in her mid-30s, said she drove non-stop for four days in the streets of the Red Sea city of Jeddah ‘to defend her belief that Saudi women should be allowed to drive.’ ‘I don’t fear being arrested because I am setting an example that my daughter and her friends are proud of,’ Hariri told AFP, adding she was offering driving lessons for women. Hariri said she was an experienced motorist as she had driven for five years in Egypt and another five years in Lebanon, while she could not drive in her own country....Hariri ridiculed the social belief that Saudi women are treated ‘like queens’ as they are driven around by their male relatives or drivers, saying, ‘this is a big lie’.”

Jadaliyya Reports also makes public a statement by the newly emerging campaign: “We women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the ones who will lead this society towards change. While we failed to deliver through our voices, we will not fail to deliver through our actions. We have been silent and under the mercy of our guardian (muhram) or foreign driver for too long.... We are your daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. We are half of society and give birth to [the other] half, yet we have been made invisible and our demands have been marginalized. We have been deliberately excluded from your plans! Therefore, the time has come to take the initiative. We will deliver a letter of complaint to our father the King of Humanity and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calling on him to support the Women of June 17.”

Several bloggers have also reported on the matter. Mohammad Yusha posted on the Pakistani Chowrangi blog the text of an email sent by Manal al-Sherif to the Women2Drive campaign: “On June 17th, 2011, we women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves….We are not here to break the law or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driving licences and we will abide by the traffic laws. We are here to walk the walk and just do it. It’s about time!”

The reaction of the Saudi public and media has for the most part been supportive.  Writing for a Special Report for Gulf News, Tariq A. Al Maeena cites various Saudis in support of Manal al-Sharif’s actions: “Many Saudis and have formed definite opinions on the case of Manal Al Sharif, the Saudi woman currently imprisoned for driving her vehicle on Saudi roads. Opinions range from surprise to distress at the incarceration on vague charges of the divorced woman....Saeed from Dhahran adds: ‘This is not about anything except the right of choice. Why should women be denied that, and on what basis? We have already determined that Islam does not prevent women from driving. Then what is it? Let them choose. And the government should support the movement by amending their laws.’"

Various commentators in the Saudi media have also expressed their sympathy for their plight. For example, Walid Ahmad Fitaihi opines on Arab News: “Islam is a practical religion that aims to regulate people’s life in the best possible manner. Since its laws are logical, Shariah has in its inner depths a mechanism to adapt to changing times and places....The present controversy over women’s driving is just one of the many rights they have been deprived of because of a distorted view on religious regulations. The late former Information Minister Muhammad Abdu Yamani, who wrote a number of articles before his demise on the injustice done to women, had repeatedly warned scholars to fear Allah in their treatment of women....Saudi women should have the freedom to travel, as they have established beyond doubt their capabilities in much more complicated fields such as medical sciences and advanced technologies.”

Also writing for Arab News, Tala Al-Hejailan compares al-Sharif to U.S. civil rights icon Rosa Parks:  “Manal Al-Sharif will surely be remembered in history as a woman who took a step forward to help change....The excuses given as to why women should not drive are no longer convincing. In a petition written to the king, it was pointed out that from a legal point of view, Article 38 of the Basic Law states that there should be no personal or criminal punishment that is not based on a religious or official decree; and since the issue of women driving is not a violation of either an official law or a religious law, then women should not be arrested for driving their cars....Since the ‘90s, there has been talk on how we need to prepare the society for when women begin to drive, setting an age limit, for example. Whatever it takes to take the first steps to allowing us women the freedom to move, the freedom to live, the freedom to be. Our voices will not fade away because of one woman's arrest.”

Sameera Aziz expresses her hope and views on the other Saudi daily, Saudi Gazette: “After five years of harsh and haunting debate, I believe things are changing. People are now open to the idea of at least discussing the issue of women driving. There was much confusion over what the law says about women driving when Manal was arrested....Whatever the points of view, confusion should be cleared and the issue needs to be addressed quickly....[T]he fact remains that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. Thus, every time the issue is raised in the global arena, it will give the Western media another chance to take potshots at women’s lack of independence in the Kingdom.” But she also warns, “If Saudi men continue to oppose women driving, there seems little doubt that the authorities have to brace themselves for more Najlas and Manals on the streets.”

Others in the region have also offered their views on the matter. Mshari al-Zaydi writing in the daily Asharq Alawsat, believes that “there are always those who reject anything new. This is a well-known custom in conservative societies, whether this is Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. The issue of women's right to drive has gradually been turned into a slinging match between one [social] current that views this as a matter of life and death, and another that believes that the ban on women driving represents Saudi Arabian women being denied their natural rights, particularly as all other Muslim women, including those in Gulf states, enjoy this right....Saudi women are part of the fabric of society and culture. Women driving will not change their culture or morals. Whoever has reservations can discuss these, and we will hopefully find logical solutions. However, banning something for the sake of banning it is not a solution, but rather a short-term sedative.”

On the same website, Tariq Alhomayed offers his support for the women’s plight but cautions against the politicization of the issue: “The basic problem is that the debate over women's right to drive [in Saudi Arabia] has been transformed into a show of force. If women were allowed to drive, this would mean a victory for one trend over another, whilst if they are not allowed, this is evidence of the strength of one trend against the other. This is the wrong way to approach such a subject; confining the issue in this manner makes light of it....Simply speaking, the problem is that the issue of women driving has become a source of psychological dread for all parties, because the issue is being symbolically portrayed as a conflict between different trends, and this is wrong.”

While it is easy to deny that any progress has been made over the last decade or so, as Rym Ghazal notes in the UAE daily The National, there seems to have been some forward movement: “Now, however, there are hundreds of Saudi men joining them in signing their full names on petitions and letters addressed to King Abdullah....The Saudis and the world will be watching closely what happens to Ms. al Sherif. Support groups are popping up on Facebook, with over 3,000 joining "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself, "a page inspired by Manal's campaign….Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I am reminded of the privilege of driving. I feel too old to have to wait for my father or the driver to take me out. Thanks to the courage of Saudi men and women, we can hope this will change soon.”

 


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