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Yet, as oppressive as life may be for Saudi women, it should be noted that many women are truly divided about whether the country’s rulers should ease restrictive gender policies, fearful they might have to assume responsibilities they are incapable of undertaking.
As one Saudi woman said, “I see how American women have to run around the city running errands, and I don’t want to open that door. As long as women driving are banned, no one will have these expectations for me.”
That viewpoint came to the forefront in a 2009 effort to urge King Abdullah to not give in to local activists and international human rights organizations regarding Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system.
Under current Saudi law, a Saudi woman must have a male “guardian,” be it her father, brother, husband or even son. These guardians are responsible for deciding every woman’s major life decisions, from choosing whom to marry to taking a job to travelling abroad.
Yet, in 2009 a Saudi woman in collaboration with members of the Saudi royal family organized a campaign to strengthen the Saudi guardianship system called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.”
Still, despite cultural, religious and political obstacles, small steps are being made to lift Saudi women out from beneath the leaden heel of Saudi men.
The most recent example came when Saudi Arabia faced a threatened ban on its participation at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games for not allowing female athletes to join its all-male contingent, a daunting demand given Saudi Arabia forbids women from participating in sports.
It should be noted, however, that Saudi Arabian reluctance to have girls participate in sports has an interesting justification in Sunni eyes. As one Saudi journalist explained, “Clerics have warned that running and jumping can damage a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.”
Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) managed to overcome the issue when it announced that a woman could join the Saudi Olympic team, albeit with the caveat that they be living abroad.
As such, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics, will reportedly be Saudi Arabia’s first Olympic female athlete, a brilliant choice that should pose no problems for the religious folk back home as horseback riders are fully clothed and expose only their hands and faces.
So, now, having won the right to ride a horse in public, all eyes are focused on seeing if Saudi women can take the next natural step and drive a motorized vehicle.
That decision can’t come soon enough for Shaima Jastaniya, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, who was arrested recently for having driven her car in the Saudi city of Jeddah and sentenced to 10 lashes.
However, Shaima, the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia, wasn’t driving to draw attention to the driving ban nor trolling for men as Professor Subhi may believe. Instead, she was trying to get to a hospital but couldn’t find a male relative to drive her.
While her case is on appeal, Shaima, according to a friend, “is frightened and very confused.” If it’s any comfort to Shaima, there are millions of other Saudi women who feel the same way.
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