Today in History – June 17, 2011 – women of Saudi Arabia launch a civil disobedience campaign to fight for the right to drive automobiles. One example is Jajla Barasain (photo upper right), who is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration in the U.S. and was home for her summer break. She said that the support from social media sites by both men and women motivated her to participate. Her reluctant father sat next to her in the passenger seat. In a recent NPR interview she says: “When I read what people were saying on Twitter, I decided that I have to do something about it . . . I have to say something and take an action today because it’s a very important day.”In another story, 39-year old Maha al-Qahtani , an IT specialist, packed an overnight bag and folded prayer rug before she left to drive in case she was thrown in jail.
The pressure to launch a campaign for the right to drive began when 32-year-old Mana al-Shariff was imprisoned in May 2011 after she drove in Riyadh. Activists compare her to Rosa Parks and the analogy is apt in that she inspired similar action by others through her “women2drive” internet campaign when she first posted a video of her driving. Six members of the U.S. Congress were inspired to author an open letter in support of the campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joined the twitter campaign with: “Beep beep and solidarity to the Saudi women & supporters challenging the driving ban!” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, issued a statement: “Not allowing women behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia is an immense barrier to their freedom of movement, and severely limits their ability to carry out everyday activities as they see fit, such as going to work or the supermarket, or picking up their children from school”. Others are blogging on whether Saudi Women’s driving protest will usher in more social reforms. This muslim female blogger captures this spirit with: Women To Drive – Let’s Go!.
Ironically there is no formal law against women driving, rather the prohibition is embodied in religious fatwahs that include restrictions on what women can do and is enforced by the “religious police” called the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. As women can not legally get a drivers license in Saudi Arabia, I suppose a legitimate arrest might be for driving without a license. I note that some of the drivers were using international drivers licenses obtained outside the country. Saudi Arabia is the only country “banning” women to drive and King Abdullah did try to reverse this ban a few years ago, but met too much resistance. There was some confusion on the legal aspects, however, and city police were not sure what they should do during the June 17 protest. One issued a ticket and two women endured brief detentions, followed by immediate releases. As far as I can tell all of the women drivers were were heavily covered and were accompanied by a male guardian.
One must view this action in the context of other constraints on women’s mobility in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to travel on their own without some kind of male guardian: husband, brother, or even a son. During my first visit there, I convinced my family to come with me. I was issued a document by the Saudi embassy verifying that I was allowed to travel alone in case I got stopped (my family didn’t really want to go with me while I was conducting business). I found to my distress in trying to go to one meeting that women are not allowed to flag down a cab, but they can hire regular personal drivers and these drivers seem to take the role of a male guardian. A luxury for the rich, this option is not open for women of more modest means. Even if one did not want to grant women the freedom of mobility, in general, proponents argue that women drivers might be valuable for family emergencies.
This recent action reminds me of a story I once read about how the bicycle was a technology that provided freedom to Victorian women. The bicycle provided women exercise and motivated more practical clothes. More importantly, the cycle allowed woman to travel much farther then before without being under the surveillance of guardian husband. Some claim that the suffrage movement greatly benefited by the ability of women to organize and attend meetings and rallies without their husband’s knowledge or approval. A good book on this analysis is Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom by Susan Macey.
I first visited Saudi Arabia in January of 2009 as part of a collaborative project between the University of California at Berkeley and the newly formed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). My contribution focused on research on sustainability and gender equity through design innovations as part of our CARES (Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability) project. In order include gender equity considerations in this project, I also partnered with a top quality private women’s college Dar Al-Hekma, nearby in Jeddah. We named our project “Estidama”, the Arabic word for sustainability.
During my January 2009 visit, I gave talks at Dar Al-Hekma (photos above) and visited the construction of buildings at KAUST. My daugher joined me at Dar Al-Hekma, but my husband and son could only visit after 4:00 pm when the students left for home. I donned an Egyptian-style abaya as it allowed more freedom with a full opening in the front. Non-Muslim women do not have to wear the hijab, but I carried a scarf with me just in case. Although I was told that the abaya was not required if I dressed modestly, the hotel I was in specifically said it was required and the one day I ventured out without it I felt daggers in my back. When wearing the abaya, for the most part, I was treated with dignity and with utmost hospitality. While I was at DAH and KAUST, my family went snorking in the Red Sea and visited the camel and falcon market (photos below).
One question I did not get answered was whether women could ride camels alone. I was told that oil-rich Saudis do not really ride camels anymore, except for sport. Although when riding down the highway in Jeddah (with a personal guide), we stopped to ask a Sudanese camel herder to milk a camel and bring us fresh milk (photos below). I was told that women in remote parts of Saudi Arabia do drive out of necessity. The problem appears to be the major cities with active religious police.
I love this story as it illustrates how technology (mobility and social media) can be a vehicle of social change (pun intended). I am interested in how far this civil disobedience goes if women are not give more freedom in general. I found the women of Saudi Arabia to be smart and motivated to make the world a better place. Will they still need to bring a male guardian with them as a passenger if they can drive? Will they be safe driving alone? Will they have a wider range of jobs they can drive to?