The Gulf Arab State is a monarchy ruled by the Al-Saud family in coalition with clerics from the strict Wahhabi School of Islam. According to them women are to be honored and protected. Their idea of achieving this is slightly different from what people would consider normal.
They ensure women are dressed modestly (which strictly means them being covered from head to toe), women are not to travel alone or without the consent of their father, brothers or husband, they are not allowed to travel in public transport and (funniest of all!) they are forbidden to drive their own car! And mind you this is all in their ‘Best Interest and Honor’… It is completely fine if they have to pay 2/3rd of their salaries to hire a driver (who in many cases harass them). And it is completely fine if these women need to stand in the heat for a long time waiting for a taxi (and get harassed by men while they do so). But it is not fine at all if they sit in the safety of their own cars and drive safely to their destinations.
Due to the absurdity with which rights of women are trolled over by these ‘societal laws’ the ruling family has been facing calls from activists and liberals, empowered by protests across North Africa and the Middle East, to allow some political reforms in the absolute monarchy that has no parliament.
On Nov. 6, 1990, during the Gulf War, about four dozen women staged a public protest against their country's ban on women driving. For half an hour, they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by the police. These women and their families paid heavily for their actions. Bans on travel, losing their jobs, they were denounced as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society. Two decades later, the ban is still in place, making Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where women cannot drive.
"I think it was worth it, because we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it… We went through around a year of harassment because they thought we did something that is not acceptable by society. 'The drivers,' they call us”, said Aisha al Mana, a businesswoman in Al Khobar who took part in the driving protest.
A couple of weeks back an event page started by a handful of individuals emerged on Facebook calling on women to drive their cars on June 17, 2011.
Out of these individuals, an activist (or maybe we can call her an icon) Manal Al Sahrif, stood up. As news of this page spread, it obviously triggered immense controversy reverberating throughout Saudi Arabia. It captured contrasting reactions. Those against the cause created responsive campaigns on Facebook. Impure, non-tribal, immigrants, rebellious were adjectives rendered to these protesters. Claims of these women being Zionist/ Western/ Iranian/ Shia conspiracy to disrupt Saudi society and corrupt the morals and honor of Saudi women also spread. Because according to them no pure Saudi woman wanted to drive!
With such immense opposition Manal kept moving forth. On May 19, 2011, she even posted a video of herself driving her car on YouTube along with that she posted Instructions to participate in the June 17, 2011 movement. She even addressed Saudi men to support the cause. She pointed out that the traffic laws said nothing about the gender of the driver. And that King Abdullah, Prince Naif and Prince Sultan all have issued statement where they said that women driving was not a governmental issue but rather a cultural and societal one.
When the next day she drove again with her brother and his family in the car, she was caught by the traffic police and was detained for two hours. Manal was later released that night. However a little after 02:00am, her campaign’s Twitter account reported that she was forcibly taken away by two women prison officers escorted by police. She was then sentenced to five days in prison and was charged with; bypassing rules and regulations, driving a car within the city, enabling a journalist to interview her while driving a car, deliberately disseminating the incident to the media, incitement of Saudi women to drive cars, and turning public opinion against the regulations. Also Manal’s Twitter account was duplicated and someone pretending to be her tweeted that she had repented once she realized that the call to lift the ban was an Iranian and atheist conspiracy which would lead the society to moral decadence.
Human rights activist, Waleed Abu Alkhair has gathered over 1300 signatures from Saudi citizens, stating their full names and occupation, and the list is still growing. The plan is to deliver the petition to the Saudi Royal Court. Abualkhair, referring to the excuse that Saudi men are uncontrollable wolves tweeted: “And it has become clear that our society is not as bad as is portrayed to the outside world. A woman has driven and no one has harmed her except the politicians.”
This is a translation of the letter:
“To the custodian of the two holy mosques peace be upon you we the children of this country have been very hurt by the news of the arrest of your citizen Manal Masoud Al Sharif on Saturday 22//5/2011 on the grounds of her driving her car in the streets of Khobar in the company of her brother. And while we were relieved at her release in the evening, we were shocked by her detention again at dawn in a very humiliating way for both our country and its people, since she was asked to sign a warrant and was instead tricked and arrested against her will, Manal is at Dammam’s Correctional to this very moment.
…You have stated in 2007 to the Russian News Network that the issue of Women driving is a social one and that the state was to facilitate the suitable environment for any decision that the society deems appropriate. The Minister of Interior has also stated that the issue is a social one and not religious, which theoretically means that if the society wants to lift the ban then there should be no obstacles. The same thing was repeated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs: that the decision for women to drive the car is up to her family. Abdullah Al Munee’a, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, have said that there is no objection from the religious point of view for women to drive. In addition, article 38 of the Basic Law states: there should be no personal or criminal punishment that is not based on a religious or official decree; and since the issue of women’d driving is not a violation of any official law or any religious law, then women should not be arrested for driving their cars based on article 36 that prohibits the baseless restriction on actions and arrest…we call on you to release your daughter and citizen Manal Al Sharif immediately and lift the injustice that have been placed on her, since she drove her car with her brother’s company and consent, and she has a recognized driving license in accordance with the Traffic law as outlined by article 2 section 34 of the law. We also believe that the time has come to resolve the issue of women’s driving for once and for all in a clear manner. To say that it’s a social issue and is not prohibited by religion, and then for women to get arrested is completely unjust and it leaves us trapped in a vicious circle. We are in desperate need for a clear law that either prohibits or allows women to drive.
…You have said your famous saying that women are your wife, mother and daughter.Your daughter Manal Al Sharif is in jail for no crime that she committed. Will you remove this injustice? We all hope for the prompt freedom of Manal.”
The local media took an official stance on Manal’s case. While columnists sided with Manal and openly advocated lifting the ban on women driving, the officials stood by their stance that Manal had confessed and repented. However, her support campaign and personal friends denied all this and insisted that Manal remains strong. Manal’s lawyer did not deny or confirm either reports but he did make the following statement:
“My client reserves her right in not making any comment at the moment and will take legal steps against any information that goes against reporting ethics and professionalism. He added, “ What concerns me as a lawyer is to raise the humanitarian sense in dealing with the case until my client is able to return home.”
Manal Al Sherif, according to first reports of her sentence, was supposed to be released on May 26, 2011. Instead her sentence was extended by ten days, starting from Thursday May 26.
The ultra-conservatives have come out in full force against Manal. The biggest impact included Dr. Ghazi Al Shamari, calling on the authorities to publicly lash Manal in a women-only mall. But she also gained support from many including many members of the Royal family. King Abdullah in a 2005 interview with Barbra Walters said that it was only a matter of time and that Saudi women have to be patient. His daughter Princess Adelah stated to the press that she hopes that the ban will be lifted.
Khalaf Al Harbi, writes, “…I want to end this post by noting who Manal is. Manal comes from the tribe that is known as the descendents of the Prophet (PBUH), so no one can say that she is an immigrant or an outsider trying to force her culture on us. Lineage aside, Manal is a woman that our country should be proud of. She is one of the first women in the world to be a Certified Ethical Hacker–EC-Council CISSP–(ISC)² Certified ISO 27001 Implementer and Lead Auditor -BSI & ISO. She is an IT security consultant at the biggest oil company in Saudi, ARAMCO... This is an intelligent capable woman asking for something that should have been a given; driving her own car. Shame on her for speaking out for her right. Shame on her for not putting up with 38,000 SAR (10,000$) annual tax for being a woman in Saudi. Shame on her for standing up for women much less fortunate then her, when she easily could have been quiet in her high-paying job and comfortable compound. Shame on her for being a courageous patriotic woman.”
Manal is jailed for fighting for something she believes in – something that’s a basic right for all humans. Would people, most importantly women of Saudi Arabia stand up with Manal and come out en masse on 17th June and live up to Manal’s hard work and expections, that remains to be seen. But a bigger question here is about the existence of these laws – are they in place to honor and guard the safety of female citizens, or are they subjugating women to lead a life of shame and dishonor. You decide.
(photo: middle class dub)
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