More on Manal al-Sharif and women’s driving

  • Eman al-Nafjan has a good roundup on the latest in Manal al-Sharif’s case. Al-Nafjan was on also on CNN to talk about the issues yesterday.
  • Wikileaks documents reveal that the US government been quietly putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive, the Guardian reports.
  • Sabria Jawhar says “There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system. The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that.” I have said it before and I will say it again: this issue has become a symbol for all other reform issues in the country, especially the ones related to women status. It has become like a psychological barrier. If we can overcome this, then we can cruise into our other challenges with more confidence and determination.
  • What if Manal al-Sharif were American, and Erin Brockovich were Saudi…
  • Tariq Alhomayed, the man who turned Asharq al-Awsat from a respected newspaper into a joke, weighs in on the women driving issue. Alhomayed fails to name Manal al-Sharif, but he says “She was stopped and told not to drive because there is no organization in place [to regulate female driving], but she returned the following day to drive yet again.” Well, he needs to get his facts checked because this is simply not true. Al-Sharif did not drive again after her first arrest, and she was arrested again from her house late at night in violation of the Saudi law of criminal procedures. Then he went on to say that she filmed her actions and uploaded them to YouTube “in order to provoke people.” How can he speculate about her motive like that when she is still in jail? But hey, at least Alhomayed offers a solution to get us out of this mess: “It would be useful to immediately announce the formation of a committee to study this issue,” he says. Yeah right, that usually works.
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Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

Exciting times in the Middle East. Winds of change are sweeping across the region, giving hope to scores of frustrated youths after decades of stagnation. The Arab Spring was blossoming at alarming pace to the geriatric rulers who found themselves resisting an inevitable fate. No where was this clearer than in Saudi Arabia, which was, and still is, at the forefront of the counterrevolution. They welcomed Tunisian despot Ben Ali and gave him refuge, they supported Mubarak to the end even after the people of Egypt denounced him, and they sent their army to Bahrain to help crush the uprising there.

Domestically, the Saudi government took several measures to block the revolution from reaching their shores. They gave away financial aid packages worth $133 billion. They tightened restrictions on media. And when calls for protest spread in the country, security forces were heavily deployed in all major streets. The intimidation worked. The streets remained empty on March 11, except for one man, Khaled al-Johani, who is still missing after he showed up for the protest in Riyadh and spoke to journalists what many people have been thinking about but never dared to say in public. The government announced it will hold municipal elections later this year, but half of the members of the municipal councils will be appointed, and women are still excluded for participating.

Women played a crucial role in the Arab revolutions, and Saudi women have taken notice. In addition for not allowing them to vote or even work without their male guardians’ permission, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving.

Women have been working on an online campaign in social networks to start driving their cars on June 17. The past week has witnessed several incidents of women driving in different parts of the Kingdom. The latest incident involved Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the online campaign. Al-Sharif drove her car in the eastern city of Khobar. She was detained briefly then released, before being detained again from her house in the Aramco camp in Dahran at the wee hours of Sunday.

Al-Sharif is an information technology specialist with the state-owned oil giant Aramco. Behind the walls of the Aramco camp, women are allowed to drive and free to move without their abayas. Typically, Saudi police are not allowed inside the camp except in cases of crime or national security matters. Al-Sharif was arrested by members of the secret police (mabaheth), an eyewitness said. Al-Sharif’s brother was also detained, but he was released later on Sunday.

Her lawyer Adnan al-Saleh told the New York Times yesterday that al-Sharif will be held for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion. Today, the local al-Watan daily reported that al-Sharif had a meltdown and repented of her actions according to unnamed sources. But activist Samar Badwai who visited al-Sharif in her detention said the latter denied the news reported in local media and quoted her saying: “I’m still steadfast and strong thanks to your support.”

The support comes from more than 1,000 Saudis who signed a petition on Facebook asking the King to end al-Sharif’s detention. Human Rights Watch also demanded the government to release her. “Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation – and, in fact, to mockery – around the world,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at HRW.

It is certainly an embarrassing situation. The lessons of the recent popular uprisings should be fresh in our minds. Throwing money at problems does not solve them. Intimidation can only take you so far, and half measures are not the answer. Saudi Arabia is in severe need for political and social change immediately, because the status quo is simply unsustainable. But most of the recent indications point to the opposite direction. Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

Read more:

Women’s Driving: Standstill

Abdulrahman al-Rashed confirms what I have been saying for the past few months: Saudi women will not start driving their cars in the Kingdom anytime soon. Al-Rashed heads al-Arabiya news channel and is usually described as pretty close to decision makers in the country.

In his column in Asharq al-Awsat last Wednesday, al-Rashed dismissed the idea of petitioning the government to allow women to drive, arguing that women’s driving simply does not enjoy enough public support. Without such public support, the government would never push for a change to the status quo. The government will not take it upon itself to do this because “governments all over the world tend to avoid adventures,” he says.

But today another columnist in the same newspaper expressed his disagreement with al-Rashed’s viewpoint. Mishari al-Thaidy argues that without any practical way to measure public opinion in the country, it is difficult to tell where the majority stands. “Where is this public opinion? How is it made? Where can you see it? Who represent it?” al-Thaidy asked.

Women’s driving, he says, is just like girls education, radio, television, satellite dishes, and combining the administrations of boys and girls together into one governing body. All of these changes were faced with fierce opposition by some elements in society. However, the government did not bow to this opposition. They stood their ground, and these changes were eventually accepted.

Where does that leave us when it comes to women’s driving?

Pretty much in the same place where we were five years ago.

Now some people like to say that women’s driving is not an important issue, and that there are far more important issues for women, and the country at large, to tackle at the moment. It is not a priority, they say. But I call BS on the “priorities” talk.

If you a are a woman who can’t go to work because you can’t drive and you can’t afford a driver then it is an important issue for you. It becomes your priority. I agree with those who think issues like male guardianship and fixing the judicial system to become more women-friendly are probably more important in the long term.

But here is why I think women’s driving matters: I believe that this issue has become a symbol for all other reform issues in the country, especially the ones related to women status. It has become like a psychological barrier. If we can overcome this, then we can cruise into our other challenges with more confidence and determination. I still believe that we need a brave, courageous political decision to make it happen. Without such courage, our society will keep running slowly in the same devoid vicious circle.

Women’s driving, woman ambassador, a pretty happy girl

  • Elaph quotes unnamed sources saying Saudi women will start driving their cars within two months. Watany mobile news service also quoted unnamed sources saying a meeting took place last week between a senior decision-maker and the Grand Mufti indicates that women’s driving is imminent. Also last week, al-Riyadh daily published a feature discussing how to implement women’s driving, which marks a transition from the typical “is it time for women to start driving or not?” Last month, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the minister of foreign affairs, told NYT columnist Maureen Dowd to bring her driving license next time she visits the country. However, Dowd told me in an email that she knows he was being sly and that driving is not going to be forthcoming.
  • Abdullah Aboul-Samh praises the Republic of Georgia for appointing a woman ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “It is a clear evidence on our civic advancement,” he adds. I’m sorry dude, but Georgia appointing a woman ambassador says nothing about us. Please wake me up when Saudi Arabia appoints a woman ambassador in Georgia.
  • Sabria S. Jawhar: “Like all Saudi women I appreciate the efforts by American and European human rights organizations to protect us from bad Saudi men and to help grant us the freedom we deserve. Without the help of Americans and Europeans my life would have no future. Okay, I’m lying. If Western do-gooders minded their own business I’d be a pretty happy girl.”

Time to Wake Up

In my previous post I mentioned Dr. Fawzia al-Bakr as one of the people who told their stories to Robert Lacey in his new book. Al-Bakr is one of the 47 women who defied the ban on women’s driving and drove their cars in the middle of Riyadh’s busiest streets in a rare demonstration to demand their rights. That was in 1990. How things have changed since then? I will leave it to al-Bakr to tell you. This strong article was published in the conservative Al-Jazirah daily two weeks ago and slipped seemingly unnoticed when everyone was busy with the attack on Al-Watan website.

Can you put yourself in a woman’s shoes for one day?
By Dr. Fawzia Al-Bakr

I was standing in front of the cashier as I was returning some of the garments, which I tried yesterday evening at home, but none did fit me properly. I had to go home and return to the shop just to use the fitting room. I suddenly realised how many things there are we are so used to do that we forgot how they are done in the first place. Our life has been stolen from us by forcing us into small details, without us even being aware.

Fitting rooms have disappeared from shops; there are only very small windows to allow us to talk to tailors. Limited television broadcasting of lectures at universities, rude male guards with specific characteristics and age requirements at the entrance of every official institution for women to regulate going in and coming out; the only exception being cars of the institution that pick up young women according to the type of cloak and the amount of skin showing at the moment that a woman happens to come out of her work, university or shops. Explicit signs in hair salons, video shops and every place of entertainment or thinking, which ban women from entering. Restaurant that resemble inquisition courts checking if women are chaperoned by unmarriageable men.

It is a world of fear, anxiety and doubt where woman born here or happened to come here, live. They have put all of us a cloth of the original sin and begun chasing us and held the entire society accountable to the extent that we lost the ability to distinguish between what is right and just and what is part of the unjust and unfair traditions, which the militias of the Awakening movement (or better said, “dormancy”) have institutionalised in our life, our schools, our universities, our markets and our hospitals to the extent that it looks as if this is how our life should be while it should no. Even going to mosques is subject to specific traditions and clothes.

Even our relation to the Grand Mosque Alharam has been modified according to their point of view; so they have restricted us to limited areas. Also, the oblivious women in our mosques, schools, workplaces and wedding halls have begun implementing men’s policies which are based on one thing: women are different creatures: intellectually inferior and incapable of controlling and protecting themselves from their owner, the man. We can use less cruel expressions and avoid using words with connotations to slavery, which human civilisations have since long rejected and which have not been used in Saudi Arabia since the Sixties when the Kingdom officially abolished slavery.

However, the men of the Awakening movement have managed, with an exceptional social ingenuity, to replace these expressions with complexly regulated and institutionalised forms of enslavement. The visible shackles might have disappeared, but the official enslavement and restrictions still exist, so do the documents women need to go anywhere in this ugly world of trivialities.

I wish any man could experience these restrictions just for a while so that he can understand what it means to be enslaved by another man who dominates him and controls his destiny, his study, his work, his children, his subsistence and his documents as he wishes. Women’s destiny is dependent on the man’s goodness and generosity; if he is good and decent, she is they are protected; but if he is morally sick or of unsound mind, then they have no consolation.

Today we are waking up and we have to wake up because there is no room for the dichotomy between owner and owned, the capable and the powerless, and master and slave. Saudi Arabia has ratified the CEDAW Convention which rejects all forms of discrimination against women, and King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Custodian of the Two Holy mosques,has yesterday announced the start of an official campaign to raise awareness of human rights and implement this philosophy in different institutions such as schools, universities, the workplace and amusement places. So, here we are, and we want the men and society who are looking for the truth to know that women are more entitled to these rights which Islam has granted them a long time ago; until the Awakening militias came and deeply eroded this society and distorted our lives and roles, and locked us into a vicious cycle.

Every woman and every honorable man, who believes in human and religious rights of women, should become aware of these small details affecting every aspect of women’s lives and treat them as an inferior species. So, they are continuously confronted with male chauvinism despite claims of newspapers that Saudi women have achieved great progress.

However, putting oneself in a woman’s shoes for even one day to experience the males’ injustice at work (be it educational, financial or commercial institutions) will reveal just how flagrant these small details are and how women are treated as an inferior species. This male’s injustice is not necessarily an intentional act, but is the result of a year-long conditioning of a sick mentality of how men and women see each other and what they expect from each other in terms of roles and capabilities.

These expectations have distorted the way they see each other: they caused men to see women according to certain stereotypes based on women being mentally deficient and incapable of controlling themselves, and caused women to see men as a superior rational being, capable of taking the right decisions because women are seen as emotionally incapable. This distorted way men and women conceive each has prevented women from recognizing their real potential as human being; the result is that they believe they are inadequate. On its turn, this belief has created these twisted female psyches, which are incapable of functioning normally and without preconceived judgments.

Everyone who is concerned with the sanity of this country should investigate these trivialities that treat women as an inferior species and govern women’s institutions. This in order to dismantle them and see the extent to which they affect women’s chances of education and jobs at all levels, and start thinking about the psychological and mental damage caused to women by this dark and gloomy life that prevented them and men from seeing the truth about life and themselves as a complete and competent human beings, capable, all human beings, of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance and right and wrong.

The damage caused by this inferior view of women and the way this view has been turned into and accepted behavior by social institutions, does not only affect women but the entire society. This society is now paying the toll for enslaving women, who, on their turn, produce masters and slaves in the magic factory that is the family and distribute the roles between boys and girls, thinking they are doing the right thing, but they are unaware of the danger of the reproducing factories where they are contributing to their enslavement.

It is time for women to raise their voices and break free from this big prison by adhering to this good leadership which is ahead of its time and which tresses the right of all people to live as equal citizens having full competence, regardless of gender.

Special thanks to the good people at Meedan for translating the article.