Human rights and feminist groups in the West continue to rail against oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, insisting on saving them from a fundamentalist religion that reviles, subjugates and veils them, when, actually, many Muslim women refuse to accept they need to be “saved” from Islam. Strictly speaking, it was the first religion to accord women equal rights. Anyway, what’s the point of denouncing Islam when the majority of those perceived to be tyrannised by it are perfectly comfortable with their faith? No, flogging that particular horse achieves nothing. It’s lying prostrate and helpless on the ground. But wait, this is the 21st century and we have motor cars. It’s just a pity Saudi women are not allowed to drive them.
The key to helping disadvantaged women in this devout and insular country is to focus on aspects of Saudi culture that can be unpicked from the fabric of religious observance. Muslim women who remain loyal to their Islamic faith do not accept that this allegiance precludes them from enjoying respect and a greater degree of social and political justice. Many of them believe their mistreatment has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with patriarchal interpretations and customs that have become groundlessly enshrined within Islamic law. The Quran, for example, does not strictly require the covering of a woman’s face, yet women in Saudi Arabia are harassed by the mutawa religious police for not wearing the veil. Not that these women really seek or need a debate about what they can or cannot wear. Quite understandably, they’re more concerned about their social and political rights. They’re not allowed to vote or travel without the express approval of a husband or male guardian. They can’t work in most government offices and are typically segregated from men in private ones. And they are not allowed to drive.
Currently, one of the most controversial YouTube clips in the desert kingdom features an 8-minute video of a woman, Manal al-Sharif, driving a car. The 32-year-old has a valid U.S. driving licence, recognised by the authorities in Saudi Arabia. She was accompanied by the requisite male relative – her brother. And yet she was arrested and imprisoned for eight days for defying a long-standing ban against women driving. In Saudi Arabia, this kind of gender apartheid is ubiquitous. It’s virtually impossible for women to travel independently. For women like Manal, a divorced, working mother, the restrictions are an intolerable burden. Her male relatives are not available to drive her around on a daily basis. Taxis are scarce and the drivers frequently harass female passengers. Employing a private driver is not economically viable for most women.
They say women drivers are safer on the roads than men. On June 17th, leading Saudi women activists are organising a mass “drive-in” protest. These women will not be safe on the roads. They will risk arrest, the loss of their jobs and other harsh penalties. Saudi cleric and government leader Sheik Ghazi al-Shemri is calling for Manal to “be flogged in the women’s marketplace as a model and a lesson.” Supporters of the protest have set up a Facebook page where they declare: “On June 17th, 2011… we women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves. We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities, we are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”
Spreading the word about this campaign will apply international pressure on King Abdullah. So let’s stop flogging the dead horse of anti-Islam rhetoric and support Manal and her fellow activists on June 17th as they drive for change.