On June 17, women in Saudi Arabia are planning a protest of the country’s ban on women drivers en masse by getting behind the wheel. Women in Saudi Arabia are forced to rely on male relatives or male drivers to get anywhere by car, and are not allowed to travel outside the country without a male relative’s permission or to vote. The Women2Drive campaign, which is gaining support through a Facebook group called “I will drive starting June 17,” will be an act of civil disobedience that could perhaps lead to a sea change of women’s rights in the Saudi kingdom. According to The New York Times, the protest will not have a centralized location. Women with valid drivers’ licenses from other countries are asked to get behind the wheel of their car, put on their seat belts, and drive around, going about their usual day. If they are able to, women are asked to film themselves driving and upload the video to YouTube.Saudi Arabia operates under a concept of protectionism — that male family members are completely responsible for their female relatives’ safety because who knows what women might do if they were allowed the same freedom men enjoy. Primarily, the concern in this Muslim country seems to be with keeping unmarried men and women away from each other. As a result, Saudi women are completely dependent on getting rides from male relatives, employing personal male drivers or hailing male taxi drivers. But, as Saudi woman Nesrine Malik writes in the London Guardian, if the goal is to keep unmarried people from interacting, the dependence on personal drivers and taxis is only putting women in contact with more men with whom they are not related. Malik said a woman who hails a taxi in public can expect to be sexually harassed while doing so and some women even report their male drivers harass them inside their cars.
Women have been protesting the driving ban for decades, but a few women in particular have been flaunting their driving recently and using social media to spread the word about it. Manal al-Sharif, a computer security consultant and an organizer for the Women2Drive campaign, for example, drove a car for a couple of hours last week and posted video of herself doing so on YouTube:
She and her brother were both arrested, although he has since been released. A Facebook group she started called “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself” was deleted, The NY Times reports. A Twitter account was even set up under her likeness to allegedly declare the June 17 protest had been called off (i.e. claiming “the call to lift the ban is an Iranian and atheist conspiracy that will lead society to moral decadence.”) A Facebook group has launched demanding Manal al-Sharif be freed from jail.
Some men are supportive of women driving. Manal al-Sharif’s father, for instance, helped film the footage of her driving and posted it on YouTube; as her “protector,” he also must have approved of her traveling in the United States, where she acquired a driver’s license. But other men, no doubt upset their control is being threatened, are warning of violence. Emirates 24/7 News reports that men are threatening to whip any woman they see driving, as well as any man who helps a woman drive.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women from driving, claims the news site France 24. If women in the kingdom could fight for this right, just think of the other rights — like traveling outside the country without male permission — they could fight for next. I think Nesrine Malik put it eloquently in the Guardian when she wrote:
“There is this odd view of women in the kingdom as being always on the cusp of dissolute behaviour – reminiscent of an attitude towards slaves who would rebel and murder their owners if not kept perpetually oppressed. This is a ghastly spiral, where the worse the victim is treated, the worse they are likely to be pre-emptively repressed.”
Best of luck to all the Saudi women who will protest next month.
[Guardian UK: Saudi Women Are Being Driven To Rebellion]
[New York Times: Saudi Woman’s Driving Video Preserved Online]
[YouTube: Saudi Woman Driving 5/19/11]
[Facebook: We Are Supporting Manal al-Sharif]
[AFP: Activists Urge Saudi To Fee Jailed Woman Driver]
[France24: Saudi Woman Arrested Defying Driving Ban]