Saudi Arabia: Battle to overturn ban on women driving is first step to women's full integration into society
The freedom to drive is rarely considered a human right, or even a subject worthy of a heated discussion; however, in Saudi Arabia this normal daily activity has been the source of mass debate amongst the population because it happens to be the only country in the world which prohibits women from driving. On Friday 17th of June, approximately 45 women decided to defy the driving ban by driving in cities across the country. They also documented their defiant actions by taking videos and pictures and posting these online. The campaign called Women 2 Drive (W2D) and was launched via the internet - through social media sites such as twitter, youtube and facebook - by a group of Saudi Arabian women. W2D encourages women with an international driving license to use their right to drive, and to do so in the cities where they can be publically seen to be defying the ban.
The public face of this campaign, Manal Al-Sharif, was arrested after driving in May and was imprisoned for 10 days for “bypassing rules and regulations, driving a car through the city and enabling a journalist to interview her while driving.” The local media coverage, however, left a lot to be desired, claiming Manal was remorseful and in tears after being arrested. Al-Sharif is also a prominient human rights activist and has been campaigning for the rights of migrant workers who on finishing their jail terms remain inside because they cannot afford to go back home and their sponsers refuse to pay for their travel.
This was not the first time Saudi women have decided to defy the driving ban. In 1990, a group of 47 women decided to drive around their cities in protest. However, they were arrested and severely punished with the loss of their public sector jobs. More recently in 2008, on International Women's Day, human rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaider decided to drive a car again and posted the footage on YouTube. The internet was one of the main mediums used to mobilise women drivers and the organisers posted many guidelines for readers. Some of the guidelines advised the women to have a male family member accompanying them and to drive with the Saudi national flag and a picture of the king in order to highlight their patriotism and loyalty to the crown.
It is important to note that Islam does not prohibit women from driving; during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to ride horses and camels freely. (To quote from a satirical piece by the princess Reem Al-Faisal, “Women were traveling the deserts for thousands of years but we can't be trusted with a piece of metal.”) Instead, the ban is based on a fatwa by the grand mufti who according to Wikileaks cables claimed that “Allowing women to drive would result in public ‘mixing’ of women, put women into dangerous situations because they could be alone in cars and, therefore, result in social chaos”. The reasoning behind the fatwa is that women driving cars will lead to them to take off their face veil. Indeed, it will make it easier for women to leave their houses and go wherever they wish.
Unfortunately, some religious commentators and authorities have viewed this campaign as “western–backed female terrorism” or even more absurdly as an “Iranian/Shia conspiracy to destabilise the country”. The suggested correlation between the stability of the country and women driving is far-fetched, but may appeal to the uneducated sectors of the country who have no source of unbiased information.
It has been reported that some of the women who were driving in the cities were ignored by the police; however, in one case a woman, Maha Al-Qahtani who had two international licenses was stopped in Riyadh and issued with a ticket for not having a Saudi license. The fact is that women in Saudi cannot have driving licenses. A significant number of women are complacent in challenging the system and this is because they are worried about harming their families' “security”. The more wealthy women also do not wish to compromise their comfortable lives for basic human rights. To quote one women from Arab News “Why should I fight for my rights if my family is wealthy enough to ensure me a stress-free and comfortable life?”
Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud is one member of the Saudi royal family who is advocating more rights for women. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying ““Bravo to the women!” Why should women drive in the countryside and not in the cities?” Many women in Saudi Arabia have driven in the countryside without any rebuke.
The denial of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is an important subject and greater than the right to drive. Some human rights activists feel that the whole debate is hijacked by this one issue whilst sidelining others. In fact, if the war is to be won against the violation of human rights and in particular women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, then the battle to allow women to drive must be won as it is the first step to social cohesion and allowing women to be integrated within Saudi society and to gain equality with their fellow Saudi men.
By Zinnia Shah