Update on Manal al-Sharif and #women2drive

by Shaker Moderator Aphra_Behn

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

Last week, I wrote about Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi IT specialist who was jailed for driving herself, and then uploading the video to YouTube. (You can watch a CNN story about the case here.

I'm very happy to report that, following a petition to King Abdullah, she has been freed and reunited with her 5 year-old son. She has signed a pledge to abandon the driving campaign, a pledge that, according to friend and fellow activist Wajeha al-Huwaider, was almost certainly a condition of release. Ms. al-Huwaider noted: "I am sure they told her we shouldn't continue with this issue. They told me that and the message was clear to me. I am sure for her it was even stronger."

It's unclear what will happen with the women#2drive campaign. Ms al-Huwaider said the fight will continue, "but in different ways." It's clear the issue isn't going away anytime soon, and it's also clear how laughably false the early reports were that Ms. al-Sharif had broken down in prison, repented of driving, and stated: "I advise girls of my generation to rally behind our leadership and Ulema. They know better than us about our condition. " And if you believe that, I have this awesome bridge to sell you. (Not surprisingly, her lawyer refuted the account.)

According to blogger Aseen Usmani, other, equally false rumors swirled around the country as Ms. al-Sharif waited in prison:
Many of those opposing women driving claim that it is a Zionist/Western/ Iranian/Shia conspiracy to disrupt Saudi society and corrupt the morals and honour of Saudi women. It is also said that any woman who speaks out for lifting the ban is not a pure Saudi but rather a woman who is nontribal or an immigrant, because "no pure Saudi woman wants to drive."
It speaks to how serious the problem is when the opposition simply cannot conceive that that many Saudi women have independently become frustrated at being unable to drive themselves. It speaks to how deep the prejudice runs when it is easier to believe in a foreign conspiracy than in mothers who want to take their children to the hospital, professionals who want to drive themselves to work, and students who want to transport themselves to university. It speaks to male leaders who are profoundly out of touch with the realities of women's lives when a cleric propses that women share breastmilk with their drivers (and co-workers) as a "solution" to the problem of women being alone with an unrelated man. (Breastfeeding children has long conveyed a familial relation in Islam, allowing men to interact with the milk-mother as if she were a close female relative.) Such suggestions aren't mainstream, for obvious reasons, but as the fabulous blogger Saudiwoman points out, the fact that this is even a topic of debate speaks volumes about the way that male clerics are not paying attention to women's realities:
The whole issue just shows how clueless men are. All this back and forth between sheikhs and not one bothers to ask a woman if it is logical, let alone possible to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breastmilk meals. As I’m writing this, I’m cringing at just the thought of it... Breastfeeding a baby is hard work and it takes a toll to be able to produce enough for a one year old, I can't even imagine how much a thirty year old would need. Women do not produce breastmilk on demand.
(I highly recommend her entire blog. Her reporting and analysis have been absolutely invaluable as an English-language source for Ms. Al-Sharif's case.)

Additionally, the reaction of some conservative religious leaders to the issue of women driving continues to be very negative. According to news reports, prominent cleric Abdel-Rahman al-Barak has said that women who drive in defiance of the ban are "opening (the doors) of evil." He elaborated: "they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this." (More background on al-Barak and his resistance to change can be found here.) Although he is not a government official, he is described as a highly influential leader of the most conservative clerics, whose support the government needs. Of course, there are other clerics in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who disagree , and women may legally drive throughout the rest of the Muslim world. It remains to be seen if Saudi conservatives will continue to win this argument, as they have for decades, or if times really are changing.

I don't pretend any expertise in Saudi politics, but those who do suggest that this is a potentially volatile period in which the Saudi government is actively working to counter the regional revolutions which are undoing the old alliance of "moderate" Arab states, and threatening to strengthen the position of Iran. What does this mean for #Women2drive?

Pessimistically, it could mean the end of the campaign. More optimistically, it could also mean that the government will seek a face-saving way to implement women's driving, if it were seen to strengthen the country internally. Writing an editorial in the Arab News, Ms. Tala Al-Hejilan makes this point, stressing that, while Saudis are not threatening mass protests, the legalization of women's driving would lead to a more peaceful and productive society. It would, she notes, lessen the number of foreigners (supporting a campaign for Saudization) by reducing the number of foreign drivers in the country, would help families save money, and increase the productivity of Saudi workplaces.

However things go, Ms. al-Sharif's official statement (English translation thanks to Zaki Safar) upon release was clearly designed to be non-inflammatory. While she may have personally abandoned the cause, she nowhere states that women driving is undesirable:
Concerning the topic of women's driving, I will leave it up to our Leader in whose discretion I entirely trust, to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the People, while also being pleasing to Allah, and in line with Divine Law.
Again, I'm not an expert, but it strikes me this is not an abandonment of her cause, but merely a politic relocation of it within a conservative discourse emphasizing respect for authority. Ms. al-Sharif also answers her critics, stating:
…never in my life had I been anything beside a Muslim, Saudi woman who aspires to remain in God's good graces and to safeguard the reputation of our beloved country....I was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs especially that they originated from individuals I least expected to go down that route. I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others-May Allah guide them rightly-to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system. For at the end of the day I'm everyone's sister and daughter. Yet how could they wound their sister and daughter with such charges?
Positioning herself as a sister and daughter, and specifying that she is not a foreign agent nor a non-Muslim woman, seem to me very carefully chosen words that emphasize this campaign is truly coming from the ground up.

For her actions, Ms. al-Sharif could have lost custody of her son, her job, and her freedom. For her own safety and the good of the cause, it seems that she will now choose to take the back seat (so to speak) in the #women2drive campaign. It's not clear what will happen next, but it is clear, from Facebook and Twitter, that Saudi women are not giving up on driving anytime soon. I've been reading women's accounts of learning to drive, right now, and it's clear that some, at least, are hoping for rapid action. I frankly admire the courage and enthusiasm these women express in the face of so much criticism and danger. One commenter in a pro-driving Facebook group even suggested a motto for the campaign: "Yalla (Let's go!)... drive!"

Yalla, indeed.

Note: While I was writing, this went up. It's pretty much the most recent English-language roundup of media relating to the case, including a subtitled version of Ms. al-Sharif's original video. Definitely give it a look if you're interested in this case.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus