Saturday, October 26, 2013

A honk in support of Saudi women drivers

The October 26th Women Driving Campaign that was due to hold a drive-in today in Saudi Arabia to try and end the ban against women driving in the Kingdom, has been dropped after threats of legal actions against anyone getting behind the wheel.

However, the ongoing battle Saudi women are waging for their right to drive, though no specific law bans such a right, continues with a call for an open-ended campaign.

“Out of caution and respect for the Saudi Interior Ministry’s warnings… we are asking women not to drive and on October 26 and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign, activist Najla Al Hariri told AFP.
Women in Saudi Arabia have been attempting to get the driving ban lifted since 1990, when around 40 women drove their cars down a main street in Riyadh. They were stopped by police and a number of them were suspended from work. The women were widely condemned in religious sermons and social circles. The then Grand Mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, also issued a fatwa against women driving followed by a formal directive by the Minister of Interior banning women from driving.

In 2011, women activists re-launched an Internet campaign calling on women with international driver licenses to take to the roads in defiance of the ban. Scores of women got behind the wheel to support the campaign.
Some were arrested as a result and were made to sign pledges that they would refrain from driving in future.
In September 2011, one female driver was tried and sentenced to 10 lashes. Her sentence was eventually overturned in April 2012.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Although there is no official law, a ministerial decree in 1990 formalized an existing de facto ban and women who attempt to drive face arrest. Women cannot be issued driving licenses either.
Religious objections took a knock when, for example, one leading Saudi cleric warned women who drive cars could cause damage to their ovaries and pelvises and were at risk of having children born with “clinical problems.”
But two weeks ago – specifically on October 10 – the October 26th Women Driving Campaign got a spectacular shot in the arm from the kingdom’s most prominent media figure Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, who is the general manager of Saudi-owned Alarabiya TV news channel.
Writing for the kingdom’s newspaper of records Asharq Alawsat, Rashed opined: “The novelty is not to grant women the right to sit behind the wheel. The newness is that the request to uphold this right was made by three Saudi women members of the Shura Council…
“Whether the government listens to their recommendation or not, the issue of women driving has become a major one involving Saudi public opinion. To avoid upholding women’s right to drive is costly for everyone, both economically and politically.
“Don’t forget, the ban does not hold water anymore. The government sends tens of thousands of female students to major universities abroad, including Harvard and Cambridge, then prevents them from driving in their home country.”
Personally, I cannot imagine being forbidden to drive.
I may choose not to drive, as I did during my 20 years living in London. It was a purely financial decision. The cost of petrol, the congestion charge and parking costs alone would have eaten up my salary. Plus, public transport was often quicker. But I still had my driving license with me at all times, just in case.
I still remember the feeling -- at 18 -- of getting my driving license and then my first car (a red mini that broke down two days later and had to be returned). Pure bliss!
And one of the first things I did on arriving in Dubai seven years ago was own a car.

The Saudi Interior Ministry of Interior on Wednesday warned organizers of the October 26th Women Driving Campaign, whose site has been hacked, that group gatherings and marches are illegal.
Officials also warned the Kingdom’s strict codes against political dissent on the Internet will be applied to anyone offering online support for a planned protest by women challenging the male-only driving rules.
One Saudi woman who is part of the campaign explains the situation in a post on LiveWire, Amnesty International’s human rights blog.
Under the title “Society’ is no longer an excuse for Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving,” Eman Al Nafjan (@Saudiwoman) -- who was arrested by police on October 10 in Riyadh while filming another woman as she was driving and breaking the ban -- writes:
If there was one word to describe what it is like to be a Saudi woman, it would be the word patronizing. No matter how long you live, you remain a minor in the eyes of the government.
In Saudi Arabia we take patriarchy to the extreme. The fact that the culture, like many others around the world, is male-dominated is not the major challenge. The real challenge is that the government has allowed this patriarchy to dictate how it deals with citizens. Female citizens are assigned a legal male guardian from her immediate relatives. This male guardian can legally marry her off as a child to a man decades her senior. He can also legally and easily ban her from education, work and marriage. He has to pre-approve any international travel officially. Since basic education is free and college education comes with a stipend paid by the government to all public college students, most male guardians prefer to send their daughters to school. Yet in those cases where the male guardian chooses to imprison his female ward at home, the legal system makes it almost impossible for her to be able to get away.
The de facto ban on women driving is one of the main things that perpetuates this governmental patriarchy. Currently there is no public transportation system available. You cannot walk to the corner and catch a bus or take the subway except in Mecca. Thus for any woman to get from point A to point B, she doesn’t only have to buy a car but convince a male relative or employ a man from Southeast Asia to drive that car. This day-to-day obstacle has proven to be a demoralizing deterrent for many women from pursuing an education, a career and even maintaining their own healthcare.
When government officials are asked about the driving ban, they respond that there is no legal or Islamic basis for it and that it is only socially maintained. The King himself stated so. Others who have made similar statements include the Minister of Justice, the Head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and the Chief of Traffic Police. Yet when a woman gets behind the wheel of her car, it isn’t society that stops her but the police. In many cases the woman is then taken to the nearest police station and her male guardian is called. The woman and her guardian are both made to sign pledges to ensure that this case of driving while female is not repeated.
There have been several attempts since 1990 to try to lift this ban on women driving. Among them were proposals sent to the Shura Council by Dr Mohammad Al Zulfa in 2006 and another by Abdullah Al Alami in 2012. Both were not even allowed to be discussed on the floor of the council. There have also been several petitions and requests sent to the Royal Court, which mostly failed to get a response. There were also campaigns to get women just to go out and drive. And they too were met with more of a response from the government than from society.
"[Saudi] Officials can no longer use the 'society' excuse"
In 1990, 47 women got into their cars and drove and the government responded with job suspensions and travel bans. In June 2011, Manal Al Sharif made a Youtube video asking women to join her in driving their own cars and was imprisoned for over a week for it.
Thus the October 26th Women Driving Campaign is the most recent campaign to try to resolve the women driving ban. What makes this campaign special is that it’s the first real civil movement to occur in Saudi Arabia. There is no face to the movement. The petition was written by more than 30 people, many of whom do not know each other.
The first couple of days the petition went public, we were still accepting revisions to the text. It was only finalized on the third day. Everyone who signs the petition is considered not only an organizer but a leader who can take the initiative to act in the name of the campaign. The campaign itself has Youtube channels and an Instagram account for signatories to upload their driving videos, photos and even just to talk or make a statement through art. Through these means, the campaign aims not only to call on the government to quit its ambiguity regarding the ban but also to demonstrate that officials can no longer use the “society” excuse.
Ian Black, The Guardian’s Middle East editor, writes in an article published Friday that “three female members of the Shura [advisory] Council -- among 30 who were appointed in January by the 90-year-old King Abdullah -- recommended this month that the ban be rescinded, though no debate has yet taken place. Latifa al-Shaalan, Haya al-Mani and Muna al-Mashit urged the council to ‘recognize the rights of women to drive a car in accordance with the principles of sharia [Islamic law] and traffic laws.’
“The three -- praised by supporters for ‘stirring the stagnant water’ -- framed their argument with careful references to fatwas (religious edicts) banning women from being in the company of an unrelated male (such as a driver). Other suggestions designed to reassure critics are appointing female traffic police and driving instructors. Cost is another big factor with families having to employ chauffeurs, as is convenience.”
But Black notes: “Signs of powerful opposition, however, are still easy to detect. This week 150 clerics and religious scholars held a rare public protest outside King Abdullah's palace in Jeddah to object to ‘westernization’ and ‘the conspiracy of women driving,’ blaming the U.S. -- a byword in traditionalist circles for anything distasteful or immoral -- for being behind the campaign.”
A female Saudi activist to Amnesty International
Amnesty International says it is “astonishing that in the 21st century, Saudi authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car.
“The driving ban is inherently discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately. It is completely unacceptable for the authorities to stand in the way of activists planning to campaign against it,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program.
“Instead of repressing the initiative, the authorities must immediately lift the ban to ensure that women are never again arrested or punished simply for being behind the wheel of a car.”
Amnesty adds: “At present women in Saudi Arabia are dependent on men to carry out simple daily tasks requiring transport. Lifting the ban would allow women to drive to work or university and enable mothers to take their children to schools.”
Referring to today’s actions, Eman Al Nafjan is quoted by AFP as saying, “the date was only symbolic, and women have begun driving before and will continue to drive after October 26.”
I will be thinking of the many Saudi women trying to break the ban, today or on any other day, as I get into my car to go to work.
Good luck ladies. You will win!