Spinning their wheels or driving change?
The women of Saudi Arabia are again challenging the ban that prevents them from obtaining driver’s license. Over the weekend approximately 50 women around the Gulf nation took to the wheel, some making videos of themselves and posting them on YouTube.
Last month seven women were arrested for driving, including Manal al-Sharif who was held for 10 days and forced to sign a pledge not to drive before being released. This time around, the Saudi police seemed to be adopting a policy of studious ignorance, though there were a few reports of tickets being issued for driving without a licence. (Since women cannot obtain driving licenses in Saudi Arabia, most were relying on foreign or international driver’s licenses if challenged.) There has been speculation that King Abdullah instructed police not to intervene.
This isn’t the first time Saudi women have held a driving protest. In November 1990, 47 women drove in the capital city, Riyadh. They were not only arrested, many lost jobs they held in government offices and all were denied permission to travel outside Saudi Arabia for a year.
Given that the number of female drivers in this round of protests hasn’t risen much since the original demonstration 21 years ago, there have been suggestions that social support for women driving hasn’t actually risen either in that time. There are changes, though: this time around, women from all over the country drove, not just in Riyadh. Some women were detained and tickets issued, but only a few. No travel bans have yet been reported.
And this time, the Saudi female drivers are calling for the support of powerful women politicians: Saudi Women for Driving sent letters in early June to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Commission Vice President Catharine Ashton asking for support. When statements from their offices weren’t forthcoming, the Saudi women released an open letter asking why, with all the US rhetoric about women’s rights in the region, Clinton wasn’t publicly adding her voice to the campaign.
Public opinion in the country is still divided, with naysayers focusing on moral dilemmas the driving ban prevents women from falling into; women are protected from regular interactions from male strangers in the form of mechanics and gas station attendants. (The unrelated male chauffeurs retained by many Saudi families, who frequently drive women around unchaperoned, do not appear to trouble moralists making this argument.) More generally, women who can drive have the freedom to move about unaccompanied, thus greater potential for unsupervised interactions with men, a big no-no in conservative societies everywhere.
But there is increasing recognition that allowing women to drive could also benefit their male relatives. This may turn out to be a key element reflecting the changing needs of an increasingly mobile Saudi society, for every single car journey women must rely on a male relative to take them or to provide the means for a male driver, and the pressure to oblige those needs is strong. Families unable to retain a chauffer often experience the stress of female household members demanding their male counterparts ferry them from place to place. Several fathers, husbands, sons and brothers sat in the passenger seat during the protests over the weekend. Secretary Clinton hasn’t yet come out in favour of the Saudi driving women, but they still appear be getting support from where it’s most needed.Tagged in: female drivers, feminism, Hillary Clinton, King Abdullah, Manal al-Sharif, saudi arabia
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