“The rain starts from a single drop”— Manal al-Sharif, Saudi women’s rights activist
In 1997 my family began packing the contents of our life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in preparation for our move across the pond to the frigid and free slab of rock, Canada.
One night, shortly before we were scheduled to leave, we drove out of the city deep in to the desert for a picnic, a common activity for those seeking refuge from the sweltering Arabian heat. But this picnic was different. My sister and I sat in quiet confusion in the back as my mum and dad switched seats. My mum at the wheel — something we’d never seen before – began accelerating and slowly moving forward.
In preparation for our big move, my dad had deemed it necessary that once in Canada my mum act as a fully functioning and contributing citizen by wholly participating in Canadian society. Being able to get herself and her two daughters safely around the city was an essential task and a requirement, as far as my dad was concerned.
As my mum began to carefully get the hang of the mechanics of the car, my sister and I also began to absorb what we were witnessing.
Here we were: In a car with a woman at the wheel driving in the darkened desert. And even though, we’d never seen anything like it, we quickly internalized that this would be the norm, part of the many prerequisites leading up to the drastic change known as immigration.
But, as police sirens went off behind us, all novelty and excitement temporarily abated.
My dad quickly attempted to explain our intentions. You see, we were moving to a country where this was almost a necessity. He wished to train his wife in the basic skills of self-mobility. The police officer offered us a curious smile, wished us luck, requested that we obey the law and left us sighing in relief in the middle of the Arabian desert.
Until recently this memory had made its home in the deep recesses of my subconscious. But the memory resurfaced on May 21st when Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old women’s rights activist, was detained, released and detained once again — all for daring to drive in the theocratic and authoritarian country of Saudi Arabia.
In late May, al-Sharif started a Facebook campaign called Women2Drive, urging women to get behind the wheel on June 17th and take to the streets, quite literally. Al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving in the city of Khobar, with friend Wajeha al-Huwaider behind the camera. The video posted on Youtube quickly generated 600, 000 views.
Since then there has been a modest-in-size yet daring group of women who have taken to the roads as well as to the Internet, proudly and loudly advocating for their basic right.
It is interesting to note that there are no specific traffic laws restricting women from driving.
Instead, the prohibition stems from fatwas (religious edicts) handed down by Islamic clerics which along with restricting women from driving also limit them from obtaining passports, travelling out of the country and going to school without their mahrams (an Islamically-recognized male guardian).