Driving While Female: Saudi’s Biggest Fear

It’s amazing how much historic change we are witnessing right now in the world and how passionate people are to promote it as well as prevent it.

I’m sure you have heard about the arrest of Manal Al Sherif, a Saudi woman, who is encouraging her fellow Saudi sisters to drive their cars on June 17 in protest of the kingdom’s custom of not allowing women-both citizen and foreign- to drive.

Al Sherif organized a Facebook campaign called Women2Drive, which tells women to demand the ability to drive to protect themselves, give them more freedom and just because! She even filmed herself driving in the streets and uploaded it to YouTube to rally more support.

Unfortunately, her campaign was cut short when she was arrested on May 23, removing the figurehead of this widely spoken about movement. The Facebook and Twitter page were both deactivated as well.

It sounds absurd, but what’s more absurd is that this ban on women’s driving isn’t even part of Saudi law, so it’s not illegal. The act of a woman driving is only discouraged because of a religious edict by some conservative clerics in the country who think that driving will cause women to go out and meet “strange men.”

Obviously, the Qur’an and Sunnah do not have any mention of women not being able to drive cars. They don’t have mention of men being allowed to drive cars. Saudi Arabia is thus the only country in the world to have such discriminatory custom and respect it as a legal code. It is simply impractical and impossible to prevent women from driving when they cannot all afford drivers and cannot all wait for their husbands/brothers/uncles etc to take them where they want to go. It’s demeaning, inefficient and unnecessary. It is not a Muslim law or prohibition–contrary to what some may think–as Muslim women enjoy that freedom to drive in every other part of the world (I include myself in that.)

King Abdullah himself said that driving is a social issue, not a religious issue, however the problem is that too many people in that society have confused those. Saudi Arabia is a unique country in that it is constantly used by many Westerners as an example of a backwards, repressive, unequal regime and the ultimate representation of what a country would look if Muslims were to run it. Oooo, scary!

People use Saudi Arabia as their counter argument to why Muslims should have to be treated differently from people of other faiths, because they see Saudi Arabia as the epitome of an Islamic country, so therefore inequality should be answered with inequality. It makes sense if you don’t think about it…

King Abdullah is known for being a reformer, or at least trying to be, but his efforts to modernize and advance his country are continuously challenged by certain religious Wahhabi scholars pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Two steps forward, one step back as they say. I do find his comment interesting in a Barbara Walter’s interview in 2005 where he said the following:

I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.

Patience is a virtue, I wholeheartedly agree, but if this country is so concerned with virtue, how can it also allow something like the Iqal campaign to emerge?

The Iqal campaign was created on Facebook by some men as a response to Al Sherif and rallied men to beat women drivers with the iqal, or cord connected to the Saudi traditional headdress. The page has been taken down as well, but not without word spreading across the Internet of course to show what kind of intimidation the Saudi women are facing.

They don’t need to be treated like “queens” or “jewels.” Women needed to be treated as humans who do human things like work, drive, walk around when and where they want. It’s not a compliment to be treated like a queen actually if you have to be controlled and micromanaged your entire life. Why aren’t Saudis concerned about their “kings” going out all day and possibly meeting “strange women” in the kingdom or outside on a “work trip?” It’s ridiculous how women have to be obedient in order to maintain public order, but men never have to be made examples of.

At the same time, I caution from overreacting by all the media coverage about the Iqal campaign and Al Sherif’s arrest, simply because there will always be this kind of uneducated and boorish behavior to any group’s struggle for their rights. Think of the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement and suffrage movement in the United States. We had our fair share of ugly, twisted reactions and we shouldn’t consider ourselves superior in that sense. I know plenty of people who so easily forget our history and our flaws and then lord over other countries who are now dealing with that conflict. Plenty will also mistakenly add this to their arsenal of attacks against Muslims and think, “See they really aren’t peaceful. Those people are in the Dark Ages compared to us civilized folk.”

We want so desperately to be able to solve the world’s problems and have everyone enjoy the same freedoms as we do so that we can sleep better at night and not feel guilty about our lifestyle. We want the whole Arab world to be rid of its dictators and join us in the wonders of democracy and liberty. We want Saudi women to be able to drive, vote, work and live without the restrictions in which they must currently.

I understand this, really, I do, but I believe it’s going to take more persuading, prodding and negotiating to end the domination of Wahhabi influence on the royal family. One day, they will wake up and release there is no legitimacy in a kingdom in an Islamic country, especially one propped up by an ignorant, misguided group of men with a monopoly on religious knowledge and power. We as non-Saudis just don’t hold any weight in their eyes to criticize them even if it is constructive and not out of spite.

For now, there is a petition you can sign to call for the release of Al Sherif. There are lots of Facebook pages you can “like” to support the end of the ban on women drivers. I’ll keep tabs on this issue, because I suspect some kindling within.

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