Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Honk for Saudi women

Saudi Arabia's "Arab spring" is almost there

 The "Women2Drive" campaign against the ban on female drivers enters its latest stage before the 17 June launch. 

Scores of Saudi female drivers are expected to switch on the engines of their cars, or the cars of their parents, and hit the road on Friday.

In a sign of good preparations,  a set of instructions have been issued to deprive critics from their sensationalist ammo.

The participants will wear their headscarves, raise only the posters of Saudi King Abdallah and flags of the kingdom and will not assemble at any point.

They will drive to pick up their children from school, go shopping or visit hospitals - and uploading a video of the journey on YouTube is optional.

Saudi style

Beyond the masses in Syria and the war in Libya, this time, Saudi women come out as the unexpected revolutionaries.

On 9 June, four Saudi women - SarahAl Fayez, Maysa Al Manea, Rasha Alduwisi and a woman known as R - were released from custody after their brief arrest for driving their cars publicly.

Their "pilot" has produced mixed results. For one, their arrest must have been slightly traumatic, but on the positive side, they showed other women that they could also do it, without being socially ostracized.

"No need to be frightened. If you will be arrested, they will only ask you to write a pledge [not to do it again]," said one of the instructions on the campaign's Facebook page.

Women vs. Clerics
On Friday, these women will challenge the clerics, the moral police, aka Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue services, and the coating of dumb social customs with piety.

 Indeed, the question of driving by women in Saudi Arabia appears to have been exaggerated out of proportion.

"I think it is a personal subject that is discussed by families, by a husband and his wife," said Saudi journalist Saleh al-Tariki said in TV interview on 3 June. "The public cannot decide on this private matter."

"It is amazing that some have managed to transform it into a public concern."

Common place outside the cities

Many in Saudi Arabia know very well that women there have always driven their cars and until the early 2000s, the moral police have observed the ban only in the cities.

Al-Tariki also added that outside big Saudi population centres, driving by women - to their farms or shops - is very common. 

In "Kif al-Hal?" (how is it?), a 2007 Saudi feature film production, one of the strongest scenes shows a Saudi woman surreptitiously taking the keys of her father's 4x4, before she drove in the dunes of the Saudi desert.

Riding camels 14 centuries ago

The ban on driving is clearly a problem that was worsened by the clerics' insistence on forcing all Saudis to observe their purist interpretation of Islam.

Writing in The New York Times, Farzaneh Milani said: "Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, commanded an army of men while riding on a camel. If Muslim women could ride camels 14 centuries ago, why shouldn’t they drive cars today? Which Koranic injunction prohibits them from driving?" 

This control - which includes forcing people to go to prayer, and patrolling shopping malls - extends also to women, where segregation between the sexes is enforced with an apartheid-like efficiency.

But why do some Saudi men object to that?

"It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector, and making it difficult for them to fully exercise the rights Islam grants them to own and manage their own property," Milani added.

Furthermore, insecure by nature, many Arab men tend to view the freedom of women as an antagonism to their own, and an invitation of sorts to immorality and vice.

Obama and Saudi women

Unlike Syria, where the USA said it has no leverage, Obama does not have to fight the Congress or do much to make this campaign work.

The US administration must therefore make it clear to Saudi Arabia that this ban must be lifted. A statement by a senior US official would suffice, for it will show the Saudi rulers that the ban is futile, on the one hand, and a source of damage for the kingdom's standing, on the other.

The Women2Drive revolt is about civil society and the empowerment of half of Saudi Arabia's population. It is imperative that the Saudi rulers restore the right to drive to its appropriate place: a private matter that can be decided by the woman and her family only, on the basis of safety and aptitude, not choice.

Saudi Arabia is a huge country, and the number of women expected to drive might not be huge owing to family or community pressure or the fact that snatching the keys of a father's car would not be easy. 

However, on Friday 17 June, we have to remember these women and honk in their support.

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