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Revolting Women: Women2Drive in Saudi Arabia

2011 September 20

This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”.

So, this happened.

In case you’ve been on the other side of the moon these past few months, the media’s much-touted Arab Spring had an interesting tangent via a discussion in the Saudi Council on whether women in Saudi Arabia should be allowed the vote. They eventually decided that yes, they probably should… eventually. We wouldn’t want to rush these things. They won’t be able to contest the elections, of course, but least – if King Abdullah considers the recommendations – they may be able to cast a vote in the municipal elections.

Except that this small pittance of representation didn’t seem to be satisfactory for women in Saudi Arabia. So… well, see for yourselves. Here is Manal al-Sharif driving in Saudi Arabia, and discussing what it means for her to do so.

She was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days for daring to drive.

She’s not the only one. There’s an entire site of these vids (in fact, more than one): women driving in Saudi Arabia, in protest at… well, mostly not being allowed to drive. Here’s a twitter feed of them doing it in style. In fact, June 17 saw 30 or 40 women behind the wheel, following weeks of an online campaign that saw women taping or photographing themselves driving. (If you’re wondering whether 30-40 people is a lot, consider what happened the last time women tested this ban. Think about what ‘punishment’ means in Saudi Arabia. Then try to imagine being one of those women out there on 17 June.)

There is, of course, a danger to conflating correlation and causality. Yes, women protesting by driving happened to take place at about the same time that women’s voting rights were being revived for discussion in Saudi Arabia. It could have been a massive coincidence, and 30-40 women, however courageous, hardly make up a political movement all by themselves. And anyway, what does driving have to do with political representation?

The Times‘s Janice Turner is pretty clear where she stands in a now-paywalled article titled The Freedom of the Road is a Feminist Issue. Consider being a woman in Saudi Arabia. Ignore all the discussions about political representation for the moment, and focus instead on the daily grind. You get up, you get dressed, you have to go to work or to the market or whatever. Luckily, your husband has hired you a car with your very own (male) driver… and should he feel perfectly comfortable in sexually assaulting you, there is nothing you can do about it.

Or how about you forgo the potential dubious safety of a hired car and opt for a taxi. Prepare to walk the streets trying to hail one: streets where your mere presence outdoors may be cast as a sexual provocation. Inevitably, in trying to lock women away ‘for their own protection’, lest they be seen by vociferous male eyes, the Wahhabi religious laws have created a space so deeply hostile and threatening to women that their mere presence is transgressive. It is little wonder, then, that Manal al-Sharif talks about how safe she feels in her car, with her doors locked.

A person’s first car has always symbolised their freedom: be it at 17, with their newly-minted license and the entirety of the countryside filled with welcoming ditches to drive it into, or at 50, with a newly-issued divorce and a hesitant rediscovery of independent living. A woman who has a car gets to choose the place she is occupying. If she wants to leave, she is not dependent on anyone else. What could be more terrifying to the Saudi religious leaders? Never mind that neither the Koran nor the law bans women from driving; they were so terrified at the freedom driving would afford women that they went ahead and issued a fatwa just to be safe.

New Saudi Arabia's traffic sign (women2drive). A yellow diamond road sign graphic showing a woman wearing traditional saudi dress making a peace sign from her car. (Image = public domain via wiki. Created by Carlos Latuff)

New Saudi Arabia's traffic sign (women2drive). (Image = public domain via wiki. Created by Carlos Latuff)

So what actually happened on June 17th, when these 30-40 women took to the road? Did governments fall or cities rock? Reports differ. For one thing, no one can agree on the number. Even the Guardian seems confused, using the 30-40 figure in one article, and “at least 45” in another. The government of Saudi Arabia is in flat-out denial, refusing to acknowledge that the protest happened at all (despite a traffic ticket being issued).

Two weeks on, five of the drivers were arrested, despite early comments from the government that they would allow their families to ‘deal with them‘. Despite this, campaigners are not deterred, continuing to maintain a significant social media presence. And even before the protest took place the Shoura declare that they were ready to discuss women driving “if requested“. I’m thinking that women risking arrest in order to parallel park in Riyadh would qualify as such.

Meanwhile, Manal al-Sharif hasn’t given up. Since her release from custody, the former prisoner of conscience has been spearheading a movement to teach more and more women how to drive. With the moderate King Abdullah on the throne, and the authorities apparently turning a blind eye to the recent on-road excursions by three women during Eid, it looks like the driving ban may not be in place for much longer.


One Response leave one →
  1. helenxm permalink
    September 20, 2011

    ” A woman who has a car gets to choose the place she is occupying. If she wants to leave, she is not dependent on anyone else. ”

    I can’t agree with this strongly enough! Even here in the UK where public transport is safe and (relatively) reliable, not driving can mean a serious lack of independence.
    In a country where just going outside alone is dangerous, it is yet another way of trapping and controlling women and it is heartening to see even this small move towards change – and great to have it publicised.

    (Also you have got me thinking a lot about driving and what it means to me)

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