Saudi Women Risk All for Small Rights

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A Safe World For Women reports that economic abuse is virtually starving the poorest sector of divorced Saudi women. These impoverished women are denied inheritances, forbidden education, jobs, and money needed to feed children, of whom they are only allowed custody until the child reaches age seven. Making their lives worse, women cannot “legali[ze] a contract or undergo medical treatment without the assent of a close male relative—father, husband, grandfather, brother or son.”

Given the extent of this oppression, it is astonishing to learn that, in recent years, some Saudi women have decided to risk their lives in order to defy the tyrannical Saudi norm depriving woman of the elementary right to drive a car.

Acts of defiance against this Saudi norm first surfaced in the early 1990s when Saudi women protested a fatwa — a religious ruling that does not appear in the Saudi law books — that forbids women from driving, even though at the time an appreciable number of Saudi women had a driver’s license from having lived in Western countries. Long-enduring the disparity in conventions, some women suddenly rebelled, expressing their defiance by driving alone through the capital city of Riyadh.

Restrictive driving laws are an extension of misogynist constraints stipulating that women must never travel alone without male family escorts, a precaution instituted by authorities for the stated reason that women might become tempted to interact and converse with male strangers. In fact, under Muslim religious law codes— the Sharia — if a woman speaks to a male stranger in public, she sullies herself and her family. This also includes forbidding her from talking to male co-workers.  Such behavior, judged disgraceful, is measured worse than criminal activity, and is punishable by death.

By the year 2007, women’s rights activists pushed against the driving fatwa, petitioning the king to remove the law. However, this was to no avail. But today, four years later, Saudi women are standing up again, fighting to change the brutal repression of their country.

In May 2011, 32-year-old Manal Al-Sharif reignited the 90s protest campaign against women driving. She videotaped herself driving alone while speaking against the regime’s laws. She posted the video on Youtube, declaring women in Saudi Arabia hold PhDs, are college professors, yet they don’t know how to drive, because it’s forbidden. She noted that the situation is so bad that when husbands are away for long periods, some women have gone so far as to ask their male children — in one instance, a ten-year-old male child— to drive them to buy food.

Al-Sharif declared that she is tired of the fatwa and refuses “to be humiliated” any more by “begging” for a male family driver, as well as “begging” them to accompany her when she must have the inspection renewed on a car that happens to be “in [her] name.” Al-Sharif declared, “We want to change the country.”

Al-Sharif, who had learned to drive in the United States, was quickly arrested after the video was posted on the web. She was detained in prison as a criminal for 10 days on charges of defaming Saudi Arabia’s reputation and rousing public judgment against Islamic laws. Only after she was forced to sign a document stating she will never operate a vehicle again was she released. The arrest incident, however, did not fade from public notice.

The arrest of Al-Sharif sparked outrage from human rights groups and inspired resistance in the hearts of women living inside the most oppressive dynastic monarchy in the Arab world. Saudi women declared they want “the right of transportation” without the humiliation of being forced to use the services of taxi drivers. One woman asserted, “[W]e [women] are capable of doing things on our own” and “wish to live our daily lives with dignity.” Another woman was inspired to drive for 45 minutes through the capital city of Riyadh, because, as she said, “I woke up today believing with every part of me that this is my right. I woke up believing this is my duty, and I was no longer afraid.”

The protest by women against driving restrictions is monumental. In the context of Saudi gender apartheid, such defiance by women can be expected to bring a harsh response from authorities. That some women are willing to stand against such penalties speaks to the fact that something new is in the wind, perhaps brought about by increased communication with the outside world, enabled by the Internet and other electronic media. Wajiha Huwaidar, the woman who video-taped Al-Sharif, observed,

“Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars on the same day to denounce the ban. Manal was capable of reaching a much bigger number of people because of Facebook and Twitter. I remember in 2007 trying to rally my friends by email and over the phone: it was a much longer process.”

This rebellion, of course, has not been greeted by Saudi authorities without alarm. To Saudi religious leaders, women driving is unsettling and heralds frightening change. Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak said women will “tempt God’s wrath” and “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”

Saudi women are now protesting their subjugation; they are standing up for their rights as human beings. They have a long fight ahead, but one hopes that by winning this small battle, it will be a portent of change in Middle Eastern and Islamic culture writ large.

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  • PhillipGaley

    We need to declare an acceptable year, do some conquering, there, and set the captives free, . . . the Saudi men would scream bloody murder, of course, and I would say, yeah, okay, fine, you're dead.

    With so very many of those backward types in positions of control—small and great—I just don't see how the world can move into the great things which are envisioned and to some extent, even now are on the threshold of achievement.

    My arguments adjudge them to have had full opportunity to have joined in the race to have shared the glory in lifting the load, but—they don't want to do that—they wish to have their own color TV's, sure, but more, to look back a thousand years to Mecca, in the face of which, stronger minds need to make the decision for them, fork-lift their ragged and raspy caravans off, over the side of the road, and welcoming those who wish to go with, the while, . . .

    I have been challenged as to how and in what way the immigrants to the Americas did not steal land from the more indigenous inhabitants. But, the peoples of the earth are in competition for decency in the many things which are commonly intended in reference to civil or civilized life, civilization, and so forth.

    And, not only from my time spent in music ministry among the Native Church, but long before, in the many of their children whom they brought to and left at the 'white' man's stoop that, their young also, might be partakers of the benefits which they sensed, to be there and which were to be for all—and in such numbers that, Indian schools were begun—in such sacrifice, that people showed then that, they agreed with the arguments which more lately, I now espouse—of things which C. Columbus, or Vaso de Gama, for but two isolated and lonely individuals, would not find dark and difficult to discern for our day, . . . and to begin, most surely, those young who died in that deadly girls' school fire, would have wished the parents of their community to have been very much otherwise that, today, they might still be living, growing, and doing, . . .

  • PhillipGaley

    . . . . and the proper end to all remnants of that G0D damned reprehensible state institutionalized sensuality, . . .

  • GinsterC

    What horrible treatment of ladies. I'm surprised a lot of them in their hoplessness don't commit suicide en masse.

  • aspacia

    True, just remember suffragettes, and birth control advocates were imprisoned in the West during the 1800's. Time for a change.

  • UCSPanther

    The men are just as much slaves here as well, being locked into a society where free thought is punished brutally and forced to follow an ideology that should have faded into the past with medieval barbarity.

    One can judge how much progress a society has made by how it treats its women, and most Arab societies have a lot of catching up to do.

    • tanstaafl

      About 1400 years of catching up………

  • Dalia Fatani


    Kindly assess the facts before portraying us as a herd in such absurdity!

    We, the saudi women have the right to do everything we want to do!
    We do have sports in schools and we have our own luxurious fabulous gyms all over the country!
    We also have our ID's and we can be anywhere we want to be!
    We go to restaurants with and with out the company of either men or women!
    We also travel the world when we want to!
    We study both in Saudi and abroad, we are doctors and specialists in all fields!
    We are looked at as treasures not prostitutes!!
    We do not have to be veiled, it is a choice according to the tribal upbringing "not religion"!

    What you are talking about has nothing to do with neither religion nor the law, these issues comes from certain groups of people whom are ignorant and suffer from the lack of intellect and in some cases literacy, in some cases these unfortunate people are taking jobs that affect people around them, but this is NOT the norm!

    What you are portraying is a specific part of the community that could very much equal to a part of yours in which a foreigner did not happen to write about in her or his personal views with out actually living in that "foreign" environment. And when I say "living" I mean living for more than a year to get the hang of things, not just a visit!

    It would be much wiser if you would have had a proper macro argument rather than a micro one, yours is filled with facts that portray specific cultural identities, not the whole country!

  • MAS

    Only some of what is stated in this report is somewhat true .. most of this is gross exaggeration and complete misstatement of actual facts … i should know i am Saudi and i am a woman. I am NOT happy with many things .. but this article is absurd!

    • LA_WriterChick

      If you are truly a Saudi woman, then why don't you give specific information about what you feel is incorrectly stated?