Saudi Women Driving: Shifting Gears

The campaign for women driving has slowed down almost to a halt since the big push last June, but the issue is now making a comeback as activists seek a different route. On Saturday, two women filed lawsuits against the government for refusing to issue them driver’s licenses and banning them from driving a car.

If you have been following this story, you will probably remember one of these two woman: Manal al-Sharif was detained last year for her leading role in the driving campaign. Her lawyer is prominent human rights lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem who told al-Hayat daily that the court, aka the Board of Grievances, has accepted to look into the case.

The lawsuits represent an interesting shift in strategy by women rights activists who in the past preferred to petition the government rather than to confront it.

It is still way too early to predict how this case would play out in the court or how the government will choose to react, but it is definitely worth watching. Also worth watching is to see if other women decide to follow the same steps and file more suits against the interior ministry over the driving ban. More on this story in the upcoming few days…

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The Good news, the bad news, and the ugly news

  • The good news is: Samar is free. Social media and new activism FTW! Now that she has been released, we should keep up the momentum and direct our energy to another person who has been imprisoned for the past four months: Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammary, a human rights activist in the EP.
  • Also good news: a tip by Saudi intelligence officials helped Americans discover a terrorist plot to send explosives from Yemen to the United States by courier.
  • The bad news is: Sand Gets in My Eyes, one of my favourite blogs by expats living in Saudi Arabia, has been blocked last week. I’m not sure exactly how the censors think, but I don’t see why would they do such thing. Not that they are particularly smart and/or selective about what they choose to block. You can help by filling the unblock form here.
  • Since no knot is being tied, I will consider this bad news, too: Asmaa has a nice post on the dilemma of young Saudis who want to get married. Well, she specifically talks about her cousin, but I think many of us can relate to what is happening with him. Probably most of you already know how I feel about the way people get married back home.
  • Finally, here is the ugly news: the Saudi religious establishment issued a fatwa today saying it is not permissible for women to work as cashiers in supermarkets. Apparently, female cashiers are haram.

Samar

Samar Badawi has always struggled with her father. He abused her verbally and physically, and even after she got married and had a son of her own, he kept interfering with her life. She got divorced, and decided to live with her brother. The father tried to sue his son and daughter, who was taken to a women’s shelter thanks to an order from Prince Mishal bin Majed, the mayor of Jeddah.

The father did not stop there. He tried to sue Samar again, but the case was dismissed. After staying in the shelter for sixteen months, she sent a letter to the mayor asking for permission to live with her son. The mayor accepted her request, and asked the police to protect her from the father.

Samar filed a lawsuit to lift her father’s guardianship, and the court ruled in her favor. The father filed a “filial ingratitude” complaint against her. When she went to challenge the complaint, “the judge pledged to teach her obedience and flog her himself.” Despite the previous court rulings and her father’s documented abuse, and even a royal order from Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Makkah, to send her back to the shelter, the judge sent her to prison.

Samar told the Financial Times that the judge thinks a woman must submit to her father, regardless of how abusive he is. “Conservative judges hate the government’s women’s shelters because they empower women. They call them brothels,” she said.

This was six months ago. It was only last week that Samar and her lawyer decided to go public with the case. Since the local newspapers won’t pick up a sensitive story like this one, they went online. With help of fellow blogger Fouad al-Farhan, they set up a blog where they told Samar’s story and uploaded all the documents of her case. The case was also heavily discussed on Twitter, where users in Saudi Arabia used the hashtag #samar to denote their tweets about it.

While Samar enjoyed a lot of support from most users on Twitter, there have been some people who defended the judge, saying the case is being used to attack the Saudi judicial system. Moreover, a blog was to “basically show how the people responsible for the news breakout are not credible, liberal westernizers,” according Lou K.

Earlier today, Samar’s lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair tweeted that the Supreme Judicial Council has opened an investigation into the case, anticipating a resolution in the next few days.

Samar’s story is undoubtedly a disturbing, heartbreaking one. It’s surely nor over yet, but now that the case is — I hope — moving forward, let me take a moment to say two of things about this:

  • The case shows that despite all the promises and the billions of riyals allocated to reform the judiciary system, we are still so far away from anywhere near a true reform for this institution. It’s been three years, and we are yet to see any tangible progress.
  • While many people still like to question the power of web and social media to make a difference to our society, this case offers a good evidence that the influence of online tools can be effective. Remember, the story was not picked up by any newspaper in Saudi Arabia so far.

I salute Fouad, Waleed and the others who supported this case. It fills my heart with hope to see many of my countrymen and women speak up and refuse to ignore injustice. Our nation deserves better than this, and we should never settle for less.