Saudi Women Driving Engine of Change

Jun 13, 2011 6:37am

If there’s been a Facebook revolution in Saudi Arabia, it’s been led by women who want to get behind the wheel. The rally to lift the ban on female drivers has been a struggle for decades in the ultra-conservative Kingdom. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, under the reign of a pro-reform King Abdullah, and with social media connecting society like never before, this time is different. “The same fear isn't there,” said Rym Ghazal, a Saudi columnist living in Abu Dhabi. “This time around we're all talking about it. You see everyone's real feelings, using their real names on petitions,” she said. That, other Saudi women agreed, showed a fundamental shift – suddenly a perennially hot topic subject to an open debate, not just in the virtual world, but in newspapers and mosques across the Kingdom. Within a climate of change, a region in turmoil, bold moves by women have been an instant flashpoint. Rebel drivers have hit the streets in Saudi for years, most notably in a 1990 demonstration that became reference point for the movement. But when Manal al Sharif posted a video of herself driving on May 22, the 32-year-old single mother was arrested, detained for more than a week, and widely condemned. Conservatives called for her death and essentially maligned her as a harlot.  Al Sharif was preempting a demonstration planned for June 17, when women plan to drive through various cities. It sets up Saudi Arabia for a nationwide truth or dare: women daring the government to tell the truth about where it stands, with reform or with the strictest religious codes. “A lot of men support these women,” said Walid Abu Al Khair, a human rights activist who launched the Facebook campaign to back Manal. “Right now we have a petition…we asked the King to be clear, are you for the women driving or are you against?” King Abdullah, widely loved by Saudis, promised in a 2005 interview that “the day will come when women drive.”  Somewhere in the mix of social media, web activism, and a new civic consciousness, Saudis have found the will to call in that check. To be clear, there is a debate raging around women drivers, with forceful emotion on each side. A Facebook petition of more than 1,000 women called on King Abdullah not to lift the ban. They cited “the great evils resulting from a woman driving,” warning it would lead to a loss of religion and to “deviant principles” that would undermine stability in Saudi Arabia. Another Facebook group had men swearing they would use their “iqals,” the black cord used to hold down their headdress, to beat women drivers in the street (a counter group said they’d used their iqals to beat those doing the beating). But beyond the hysteria on both sides were a series of practical arguments. Those for women driving say that working women spend up to 40 percent of their salaries on a driver, when Saudi families need the spare income. The driving ban forces women to rely on foreign chauffeurs, entrusting them with their children’s safety, and bars women from driving to the hospital in an emergency. Those voices against lifting the ban argue that chaos will overcome the roads, that men will harass solo females, that a stronger public transportation system is the right remedy for low-income women. At the very least, they say, a commission should be established to study the consequences.  Saudis are making room for debate in the public square – the campaign for women drivers serving as a case study, if not a catalyst, in Saudi civic activism. It’s grown like a wave over the past few years, rallying for the end of child marriage, municipal voting rights, or other reforms in the status of women. One Saudi woman who’s led a circle of women writers across the Kingdom, planting articles that advocate for change, told me that the Arabic word for “campaign” – hamla – has spiked in public parlance. Now, enabled by the web and empowered by the Arab Spring, activists say they are ready to raise their voices. There are checks to the volume – a chill from the sense that Manal was made an example, that Saudi authorities have clamped down on any trace of the Arab Spring within the Kingdom. But running in parallel is a quiet feeling of encouragement, that the Saudi establishment who rule by consensus and have long feared ultra-conservatives, actually want the liberal element of Saudi Arabia to make a strong public showing. In other words, change will come only when activists prove they can win the day. Madeha al Ajroush, one of the 1990 women drivers and now active this new wave of the campaign, says she feels that quiet assent. “They haven’t been shutting down any of Facebook sites…I haven’t gotten a phone call telling me to stop,’ she said. ‘I think they do want change for women, they just want it from the people.” That means that the debate, boiling as it is, would be what’s meant to happen – that change in Saudi Arabia comes through it, landing society in the average of the two sides.  Ajroush says the conservatives have already lost political points in the debate. “The credibility of the religious people is going down as they slam women on television, say that these women should die,” she said. “They’ve done us favors by saying these things.” The debate could tip this Friday, after months of run up, when the planned June 17 goes forward. Activists tell us they still plan to drive, but in smaller numbers, and mostly through the efforts of single women – wives and mothers not to put their families at risk. Other inventive tactics have emerged, a plan for people to honk their horns from 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., and put up signs in their windshields supporting the cause (some humorous, women in the backseat holding up “I promise I won't run a red light”). The signs speak of newfound courage and crafty tools, deployed in an old battle. ‘Social media made us fight,’ said Ajroush. Other women we spoke to agreed. “Twenty years is a lifetime,” she said. “We’ve waited enough.” MORE LINKS: NY Times Op-Ed: Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders  Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia Country Summary | Saudi Reform Under King Abdullah  | Campaigns On Facebook: Let Saudi Women Drive  | Saudi Women Revolution TALK/TWEET BACK: With Saudi women asking Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for help – support for their bid to drive – is the US letting them down? Should America take a firm public stance?  

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