Manal Al-Sharif: On the Road

by Shaker Moderator Aphra_Behn

[Trigger warning for misogyny, religious oppression, violence.]

She doesn't look like she's plotting to destroy an entire country.

She's just driving a car. [Description of video at link: A woman in head-scarf and sunglasses, speaking in Arabic while she drives.]

But for a woman in Saudi Arabia, that is nothing short of a revolutionary act. Manal Al-Sharif is currently in jail after posting a YouTube video of herself driving. As she waits in jail, her supporters are using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to spread the word. Ms. Al-Sharif, who works as an IT security consultant, is being compared to Rosa Parks for her determination to challenge inequalities in the Kingdom's transportation system. The Women2Drive campaign is mobilizing women across Saudia Arabia in support of women's right to freely access healthcare, employment, education, and all the other human needs that are dependent upon transportation.

No other country on earth restricts women from driving. Public transport is limited, and proposals to make it accessible to women have stalled. Many women are entirely dependent on male relatives for transportation. Wealthy families may hire a driver. Poorer women may simply be stuck at home, especially if they are divorcees or widows.

Taking a taxi is possible, but it still leaves women in the company of unrelated men, a seeming contradiction to the argument that the driving ban preserves women from such mixing. Indeed, Al-Sharif and her supporters are pointing out such contradictions, making a case based on arguments relating to modesty and safety, as well as on inequalities of class and gender. For example, in the videoof herself driving that she posted to YouTube on May 19, Al-Sharif notes that women whose male drivers have a heart attack are put in an dangerous situation if they do not know how to take the wheel. The very name of the Facebook page for the campaign, called "Teach Me How To Drive So I Can protect Myself," emphasizes this. The pro-driving women of Saudi Arabia also emphasize their roles as mothers, daughters, and sisters. What is a daughter to do if caring for an ailing father who needs medical attention? How can a widow get her children to school?

Ms Al-Sharif and her supporters are organizing a mass action on June 17. In keeping with the tone of their campaign, it is meant to be a very civil protest, one that women can carry out without mass demonstrations or gatherings. The campaign simply calls for women with licenses from other countries to get in their cars and drive. That's it. (You can read a description of the protest, with background, from a supporter here. Pro-driving campaigners argue that they are not, in fact, even breaking the law, since the prohibition on driving came as a fatwa (religious edict), not the laws of the Kingdom.

I don't claim to be an expert on Islamic law, nor on the Kingdom Saudi Arabia for that matter, but I certainly want to give these brave women my support. Their campaign comes at a time when other challenges and changes are afoot:

• Samia, a Saudi surgeon, is going to court to challenge the guardianship system, which grants her male relatives have almost complete control over her life. She says her father takes most of her earnings and tries to force her to marry her a cousin whom she does not love, despite the fact that such forced marriages are against Islamic principle.

• The government had promised to allow women a vote in the fall municipal elections. When it reneged, groups of women began attempting to register anyway, creating a Facebook page called Saudi Women Revolution. As one of the women put it in this story, "We just have to find someone who will let us do it — someone who, you know, sees his daughter in us or his wife, or believes in it."

• King Abdullah just opened the Kingdom's first women-only university, a campus which can serve up to 50,000 students, and will significantly increase access to higher education for women.

As the last item might indicate, King Abdullah has signaled some support for women's rights. He appointed Norah al-Faiz as deputy minister of women's education, the first-ever female cabinet minister in Saudi history. In his first interview with Western media after assuming the throne (granted, significantly, to Barbara Walters) he stated:
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.
Of course, this was followed, frustratingly, with:
The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.
As I said, I don't claim any expertise in Saudi politics or Islamic law, but this article (recommended at the Facebook Group Woman Behind the Wheel) gives some background to the interplay between religion and state in Saudia Arabia, with specific attention given to the driving ban. It's well worth a read. In it, Sheikh Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, the son of the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (the man who issued the fatwa against women driving), seems to indicate that the circumstances which drove the fatwa may no longer apply.

Yet it's also clear that the royal government needs the support of the religious leadership, including its hard-line elements. And make no mistake: The driving campaign has brought out some very ugly opposition. As this story notes, there is a Facebook campaign encouraging men to beat women drivers with cords on the day of the protest. The women campaigning to drive face genuine danger.

According to a commenter in the Saudi Women Drivers Facebook group, more attention from Western media would be helpful to their cause. There have been some stories covering the protest, but when (literally) the Muppets get top billing over Ms. Al-Sharif, then you know our garbage media is going to do its usual stellar job.

If you are able to do so, and would like to help boost the signal, you can use the tags #FreeManal and #Women2Drive on Twitter. In addition to the FB groups above, the large group We Are Supporting Manal Alsharif is providing many regular updates on Ms. Al-Sharif and other women supporting the driving movement. Although Ms. Al-Sharif's original YouTube posting and Facebook group were taken down, the Saudi government is learning that social media is hard to suppress. You can read more about the role of social networking in the campaign here. Further ideas for teaspooning are welcome in comments.

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