Women2Drive, Part 3: Women behind the Wheel

by Shaker Moderator Aphra_Behn. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

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

Today, women are driving to grocery stores. They're driving to work. In some cases, they are simply driving around the block.

This would be unremarkable, were it not for the fact that this is happening in Saudi Arabia. One verb—"driving"—sets these actions apart as the start of a peaceful protest in support of Saudi women's basic rights.

You may recall this story broke in the Western media with the arrest of Manal Al-Sharif, the Saudi computer security expert and activist who uploaded pictures of herself driving onto YouTube. She was later released, after signing a written pledge not to drive any more. Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi writer and activist who has been involved with the story since the arrest of Ms. Al-Sharif, has a summary, with updates. Her discussion also delves into some of the politics involved, including the way Ms. Al-Sharif's father used the support of his tribe to petition King Abdullah for Ms. Al-Sharif's freedom.

After Ms. Al-Sharif's release, the planned June 17 protest remained a hot topic in Saudi Arabia. It gained new media attention when popular actress Wajnat Al-Rahbini was arrested after driving herself to the passport office. She was released after promising never to drive again, but noted that she had driven her late husband when he was alive, due to his poor health. Six more women were arrested for driving on June 9th.

Other media attention related to the issue focused on the grim fact that Saudi women under the current system are very vulnerable to violence from their hired drivers. An unnamed Saudi business woman was raped at gunpoint by her driver in early June. Rape is little-discussed in Saudi Arabia; that the survivor and her friends were willing to leak this difficult story to the press speaks volumes about what is at stake for Saudi women in the right to drive campaign. Meanwhile, the Shura (advisory government council) recommend that women be permitted to vote in future municipal elections, but failed to address the topic of women's driving, despite petitions to do so.

And today, the protest has gone forward as planned; you can get a pretty extensive picture of the situation as of this morning from this CBC Radio story, which includes an interview with Eman Al Nafjan, of the fabulous Saudi Woman blog. Over at Foreign Policy, Ellen Knickmeyer profiles Maha Al-Qahtani, who, accompanied by her husband and carrying an overnight and prayer rug in case of arrest, took to the streets in her Hummer this morning. (As of this writing, Ms. Al-Qahtani has been ticketed, but not arrested.)

Calling today's action a protest is a little misleading; it would be illegal in Saudi Arabia for anyone to lead a mass demonstration. Thus, the women involved are not meeting any one place, nor trying to intentionally snarl traffic, nor disrupt businesses. In fact, the political genius of what they are doing is that they demonstrate women driving would really not be disruptive at all. That's an important point in a conservative kingdom whose government takes pride in its stability in these months of "Arab Spring" protests. Supporters of the protest, like Samar Fatany writing in Arab News, paint it in fully Islamic, fully Saudi terms. There are male supporters speaking out as well: On June 4, commentator Tariq A. Al-Meena decried the reluctance of the Shura Council to resolve the issue. Today, Dr. Mohammad al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, called on political leadership and intellectuals to "fully resolve this issue so women are not deprived of their natural rights."

Organizers continue to use social media to organize and confound their opponents. Of course, those who would continue to oppress them are using Facebook as well, in hostile groups where members decry the protests. Thus far, there have been no reports of violence against women drivers, but considering the threats made previously, anything could happen. As of this moment, it seems that the women involved plan to continue driving beyond today.

Teaspooning: This is a developing situation, and while there is not a lot that can be done outside Saudi Arabia, you can certainly show support on Twitter and Facebook if you wish to and are able to do so. "Honk for Saudi Women Drivers," launched by U.S. writer Trisha Calvarese, is soliciting people to load videos to YouTube of themselves honking their car horns in support. You can send links to your video to honkforsaudiwomen@change.org.

You can also follow developments on Twitter with the #Woman2Drive hashtag, or via Facebook groups like Support Women2Drive or We Are Supporting Manal Al-Sharif, where women are currently sharing YouTube videos of themselves driving. Links to other means of support and solidarity are welcomed in comments.

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