Women Will Drive Today; Drops of Freedom in Saudi Arabia

Manal al-Sharif at the Oslo Freedom Forum, courtesy of Daniel Diu Sabá

June 29th, 2012

Just over a year ago around 40 women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars, daring to claim their right and breaking the ban. Two weeks ago, the Right to Dignity Campaign, known as “Women2Drive”, presented a petition to the King to change this draconian prohibition. Today, the campaign is calling on women in Saudi Arabia to take to the streets to drive in protest of the ban.

While there is no law against it, many have been arrested since last year only to be freed when they signed a statement saying they would never drive again, Shaima Jastania was sentenced to 10 lashes for it only to be overturned by the grace of the King, and the interior minister formally banned driving right after that day.  Two women have even sued the government because they refuse to grant them driving licenses.

Saudi Arabia is an extremely unjust society.  Individual rights are not respected nor protected by the government. There is no freedom of speech and all decisions are made by one group of people. This means that government is completely unaccountable and totally anti-democratic.  Furthermore, the “West” is happy to prop it up since it provides stability in the region, is a friendly source of oil and it acts as a bulwark against terrorism and Iran.

A powerful way to humanize this situation is the story of Manal Al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who started the Women2Drive Campaign. As an employee of Aramco (the world’s biggest oil company, owned by the Saudi Government), at the information protection management division, she was only one of only two women. Part of her job benefits, included living in an Aramco employee town, in which, ironically, Saudi citizens enjoy a small amount of freedom. There are golf courses, cinemas, and, surprisingly, women drivers. Yes, women are permitted to drive inside the compound.

One day, trying to come home from a doctor’s appointment in a neighboring town, Ms. al-Sharif couldn’t find a cab and her brother’s phone was turned off.  She started walking. Men drove by with the windows down, hurling insults and lewd comments at her. One car even slowed down and doubled back to intercept her. On that day Ms. al-Sharif feared for her life.

After hearing from coworkers the next day that there was no law against women driving, she asked herself, as reported by Women’s ENews, “I have a car and a driver’s license. Why can’t I drive outside of Aramco?”

As Ms. al-Sharif began to speak out and gain recognition for her activism, she was invited to various rights conferences outside of the country. Aramco time and time again denied her time off to attend the events. When she asked for permission to travel to Oslo last month to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum, she was refused, and in consequence, she resigned.

On May 10th the Oslo Freedom Forum published Ms. al-Sharif’s speech on YouTube. Since then, the video has been viewed more than 315,000 times, mostly from viewers inside the Arab peninsula. Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum’s YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying Ms. al-Sharif as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam. As a result, Ms. al-Sharif has been the target of thousands of attacks—on YouTube, Twitter, blogs, online news sites, and even print media in Saudi Arabia.

Some of these attacks are extremely vicious and offensive, including insults and phrases such as: “slut,” “dog,” “whore,” “prostitute,” and “traitor.” Some explicitly threaten Ms. al-Sharif with violence, sexual assault, and even death. Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring Ms. al-Sharif a “hypocrite”—thereby questioning Ms. al-Sharif’s status as a Muslim and placing her under further risk.

Ms. al-Sharif lost her job, the mortgage on her house, her job prospects for the future, and, if she chooses to leave Saudi Arabia to find work, she may also lose custody of her 6-year-old son.

Why would a woman endure this kind of backlash to achieve such a minor freedom? Because in Saudi Arabia, it isn’t a minor issue.  There is no public transportation, cities are not pedestrian-friendly, and where sidewalks do exist it isn’t safe for a woman to walk the street. This is why women are bound to use taxis or private drivers–draining their resources. On average, Saudi women pay upwards of one-third of their salaries to drivers. There are more than one million private drivers–a black market with no structure for background checks or safety. In families that cannot afford a private driver, children as young as 10 serve as drivers. These factors lead to absurdly high fatalities on the roads.

Women today are claiming their right to be equal before the law.  The argument they have sparked has blown open the discussion of human rights in the absolutist-male-dominated monarchy and cracked the airtight official policy on dissent itself. Although the window of freedom has only slid open a fraction of an inch, it has inspired women to start claiming their rights as free and equal citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Ms. al-Sharif closed her Oslo speech with the following line: “the rain starts with a single drop.”

Today women will drive in Saudi Arabia and freedom will rain in the desert.

Pedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Additional Research contributed by Jamie Leigh Hancock.

About Pedro Pizano

Now in Law School at Northwestern. Founder and CEO of Pizano Strategies: Human Rights Consulting. Formerly held the position of Strategy and Development Associate at the Human Rights Foundation and the Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow me on twitter: @pedropizano