A Safe World For Women reports that economic abuse is virtually starving the poorest sector of divorced Saudi women. These impoverished women are denied inheritances, forbidden education, jobs, and money needed to feed children, of whom they are only allowed custody until the child reaches age seven. Making their lives worse, women cannot “legali[ze] a contract or undergo medical treatment without the assent of a close male relative—father, husband, grandfather, brother or son.”
Given the extent of this oppression, it is astonishing to learn that, in recent years, some Saudi women have decided to risk their lives in order to defy the tyrannical Saudi norm depriving woman of the elementary right to drive a car.
Acts of defiance against this Saudi norm first surfaced in the early 1990s when Saudi women protested a fatwa — a religious ruling that does not appear in the Saudi law books — that forbids women from driving, even though at the time an appreciable number of Saudi women had a driver’s license from having lived in Western countries. Long-enduring the disparity in conventions, some women suddenly rebelled, expressing their defiance by driving alone through the capital city of Riyadh.
Restrictive driving laws are an extension of misogynist constraints stipulating that women must never travel alone without male family escorts, a precaution instituted by authorities for the stated reason that women might become tempted to interact and converse with male strangers. In fact, under Muslim religious law codes— the Sharia — if a woman speaks to a male stranger in public, she sullies herself and her family. This also includes forbidding her from talking to male co-workers. Such behavior, judged disgraceful, is measured worse than criminal activity, and is punishable by death.
By the year 2007, women’s rights activists pushed against the driving fatwa, petitioning the king to remove the law. However, this was to no avail. But today, four years later, Saudi women are standing up again, fighting to change the brutal repression of their country.
In May 2011, 32-year-old Manal Al-Sharif reignited the 90s protest campaign against women driving. She videotaped herself driving alone while speaking against the regime’s laws. She posted the video on Youtube, declaring women in Saudi Arabia hold PhDs, are college professors, yet they don’t know how to drive, because it’s forbidden. She noted that the situation is so bad that when husbands are away for long periods, some women have gone so far as to ask their male children — in one instance, a ten-year-old male child— to drive them to buy food.
Al-Sharif declared that she is tired of the fatwa and refuses “to be humiliated” any more by “begging” for a male family driver, as well as “begging” them to accompany her when she must have the inspection renewed on a car that happens to be “in [her] name.” Al-Sharif declared, “We want to change the country.”
Al-Sharif, who had learned to drive in the United States, was quickly arrested after the video was posted on the web. She was detained in prison as a criminal for 10 days on charges of defaming Saudi Arabia’s reputation and rousing public judgment against Islamic laws. Only after she was forced to sign a document stating she will never operate a vehicle again was she released. The arrest incident, however, did not fade from public notice.
The arrest of Al-Sharif sparked outrage from human rights groups and inspired resistance in the hearts of women living inside the most oppressive dynastic monarchy in the Arab world. Saudi women declared they want “the right of transportation” without the humiliation of being forced to use the services of taxi drivers. One woman asserted, “[W]e [women] are capable of doing things on our own” and “wish to live our daily lives with dignity.” Another woman was inspired to drive for 45 minutes through the capital city of Riyadh, because, as she said, “I woke up today believing with every part of me that this is my right. I woke up believing this is my duty, and I was no longer afraid.”
The protest by women against driving restrictions is monumental. In the context of Saudi gender apartheid, such defiance by women can be expected to bring a harsh response from authorities. That some women are willing to stand against such penalties speaks to the fact that something new is in the wind, perhaps brought about by increased communication with the outside world, enabled by the Internet and other electronic media. Wajiha Huwaidar, the woman who video-taped Al-Sharif, observed,
“Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars on the same day to denounce the ban. Manal was capable of reaching a much bigger number of people because of Facebook and Twitter. I remember in 2007 trying to rally my friends by email and over the phone: it was a much longer process.”
This rebellion, of course, has not been greeted by Saudi authorities without alarm. To Saudi religious leaders, women driving is unsettling and heralds frightening change. Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak said women will “tempt God’s wrath” and “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”
Saudi women are now protesting their subjugation; they are standing up for their rights as human beings. They have a long fight ahead, but one hopes that by winning this small battle, it will be a portent of change in Middle Eastern and Islamic culture writ large.
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