“My wife is ready to go to prison without fear,” tweeted Mr. Al Qahtani. Meanwhile his wife, Maha, tweeted her adventure of driving down King Fahd Road. “I decided the car was mine,” she wrote. Like many other Saudi women, Maha spent Friday the 17th protesting the decades-long ban on women driving within the kingdom. But the women protesting want to make one thing clear: the 17th is not just a day of demonstration, it is the day they kick off civil disobedience, and they’re refusing to let up until the archaic law is lifted.
One of the women who helped set off the campaign, Manal al Sharif, was detained for ten days last month after uploading a video of her driving onto YouTube. In it, Manal explaines that, “we do not all live a luxurious life.” How, even if she could afford a driver she could not let a strange man just live in her house. The woman who is in the passenger seat taping Manal as she drives through the streets of Riyadh interjects that, “This society lives with this theory that for every woman, there is a man who takes care of her. But if this man does not exist must the woman be humiliated?”
It seems for many women inside the country, the answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, a push back against man of the country’s sexual segregation laws is said to be reaching its boiling point. For an outsider it can be difficult to understand just how spread apart men and women are in everyday Saudi society. However for most women, even standing in a line at Starbucks must be controlled. Public transportation, school, concerts, shopping malls, and doctors clinics are also places where the two sexes shall not meet. Which, of course makes the rule of a male relative escort somewhat complicated. Coffee shops in marble malls full of the latest trends will have curtained off areas in which families can sit together. This way the male/female presence in the area will not disrupt the virtue of the other patrons.
Yet both women and men are gaining new access to the outside world. Through their cellphones, Internet, and education, more and more Saudi citizens are joining the ranks of the global youth and are looking forward to a new kind of future. Most men, who do not relish the idea of spending a large percentage of their monthly salary on drivers are hopeful that religious edict will soon be redacted.
Shockingly, there is no real law in Saudi Arabia that prevents women from driving. Although the women in 1990 who staged a mass public revolt and drove a female-led convoy around the capital where certainly punished, the official stance of the Saudi Arabian government is that they simply will not issue license cards to female citizenry. In some cases, outraged religious police have been known to send warnings to women, threatening beatings or humiliation should they press the social boundaries. But for the most part, it seems the country is now growing past the stage in which such severe repression will be tolerated.
The Facebook page Women2Drive, which has helped reach out and organize the June 17th kickoff, has received massive support from the online global community. From Malaysia to Norway there are thousands of messages of support for the Saudi Women plastered on its walls. Other sister sites, which are primarily in Arabic, have messages from Arabs all over the world, letting the Saudi women know that they’re behind them 100%.
Still, if this was a simple popularity contest, the results would already be known. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the entire world that issues such strict controls on the female population. Controls that have been protected by keeping the monarchy in close relations with the United States. As one of the West’s biggest allies within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s ruling party is practically untouchable. The United States would never allow a revolution, as it would no doubt destabilize the entire area. Thus the Saudis are basically given carte blanche to do as they please to their citizenry with little to no condemnation from the powers that be.
If Saudi Arabian women are able to find a way through the oppressive atmosphere has yet to be seen. But what is obvious is that through modern media and in this new era of global connectedness, activists and leaders can gain worldwide notoriety through a simple YouTube upload. Something almost any cosmopolitan Saudi woman now as the ability to do. At this point, rather than risking any possible upheavals that are still washing over the region as a whole, it might behoove the Saudi royal monarchy to finally issue a repeal of the edict that removed women from the driver’s seat. For many women, they can practically feel the moment they hold up their own legitimate license cards. But until that happens, they will continue slipping in behind the wheel, turning on their handheld cameras and testing the long-held assumption of female frailty and control within the kingdom.