In a defiant move against the repressive treatment of females in Saudi Arabia, women across the Kingdom will do something commonplace around the world but forbidden in their country: they’ll start driving. Consider it the shot across the hood (much like the protest against virginity checks in Egypt) and a wake-up call that the Arab Spring will only flourish when women’s rights are on the forefront of democratic changes. Many international organizations point out that when it comes to environmental issues, improving the welfare of women and children must take center stage.
The ‘Women2Drive’ campaign has strong grassroots support, relying heavily on social networking. The official Arabic twitter account, @W2Drive has over 8500 followers (the English account has about 1500), and the number of copycat support groups, particularly on Facebook, number in the many dozens.
We’ve been following this development since May, when we first heard of the story of Najla al-Hariri, a Saudi woman who defied the ban on women drivers in the ultra-conservative kingdom for four days in her sea side 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. Her act of defiance may have inspired the group of Saudi women to launch the Internet-based campaign as a national protest against the gender apartheid in their country.
Saudi women are banned from driving and traveling without authorization or guardianship from male relative escorts, and cannot vote in municipal elections. In public, they are obliged to cover from head to toe. A recent BBC documentary even discussed the discomfort they face in such simple acts as shopping for personal undergarments: because they can’t work in retail stores, they have to buy bras from male clerks, a further affront to their personal sovereignty.
Farzaneh Milani – chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.” – wrote a widely circulated New York Times Op-Ed on the movement, pointing out that the restrictions have no basis in Islamic beliefs.
“Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector, and making it difficult for them to fully exercise the rights Islam grants them to own and manage their own property. It is about denying women the basic human right to move about freely.”
Metaphorically, the symbolic nature of turning a key to open a new door hasn’t been lost on many observers, including Milani. “The women demonstrating for the right to drive in Riyadh are seasoned negotiators of confined spaces and veteran trespassers of closed doors and iron gates. They are a moderating, modernizing force to be reckoned with — and an antidote to extremism.”
“Their refusal to remain silent and invisible or to relinquish their rights as citizens is an act of civil disobedience and moral courage. Their protest, and those of their sisters across the Middle East, represents a revolution within revolutions — and a turning point in the contemporary history of Islam.”
Women2Drive began training sessions for participants June 15. The campaign begins Friday, June 17. “We will continue to achieve justice wished for the Islamic religion, society and human values,” they state. Given the global response and support thus far, we share their enthusiasm that once women are in the drivers seat, democratic change will find modern roots in a region that is struggling to emerge from ancient restrictions.
:: Photo credit
Read more on women’s issues:
Muslims Debating Harassment, Standing Up for Women’s Rights, Harassmap.com
Egyptian Women Forced to Take ‘Virginity Tests’ asserts Amnesty International
Olympia Snowe Leads US Women Senators in Renewed Call for Women’s Rights in the Middle East