“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).
Up until the early ‘90s there was no hard and fast ban against women taking to the wheel. But in 1991, 47 women drove cars through the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after which an official legislation was introduced. Simultaneously, these women were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and many lost their jobs.
Now, two decades later, as women once again are defying authority and driving, mixed reactions are being reported. Many women claim to have whizzed past, completely ignored, by law enforcement authorities. Others are tweeting a different story – one in which they are ticketed and in some extreme cases detained by soldiers and escorted back home.
Those of us, the global bystanders on the sidelines who are anxiously waiting to see how this modest protest movement will pan out, are probably most baffled by just how the House of al-Saud thinks it can so severely restrict and limit its women —a demographic comprising a hefty fifty percent of its population.
King Abdullah, reigning monarch, is noted for having said women in Saudi Arabia will one day drive. However, his voice remains constricted by the conservative religious establishment. And as far as the timing goes, it remains hazy and unclear as to just when this “right time” is slated to begin. But for some Saudi women, waiting is no longer an option, for reasons ranging from the right to having their basic humanitarian needs met to the personal to the political.
Al-Sharif argues it best. Not all Saudi women are “queens” who are able to extol the virtues of drivers. And modes of public transportation are also not an option for most women. As one friend, who wished to remain anonymous, explained to me, “most self-respecting Arab women wouldn’t get into a taxi”.
This may seem an odd statement to those of us who a la Audrey Hepburn (circa Breakfast at Tiffany’s) need to step off the curb on to the street and wolf-whistle in order to flag down the nearest taxi driver. But in a country where complaints of sexual harassment and molestation at the hands of taxi drivers are rampant, it comes as no surprise that getting into a car with a stranger is not an option for these women.
Since the self-immolation carried out by a Tunisian fruit vendor which had far-reaching consequences across the region, the world has watched the political and social transformation across the Muslim world.
Perhaps fearing a similar protest movement in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is what has led Saudi authorities to clamp down with such force on al-Sharif, who spent a week in jail.
But, as many streets across the Arab Spring take over and defy many an establishment, it is clear that change has arrived, the status quo has been challenged in the region.
And it will take a lot more to tame the spirits of these women — no matter how bumpy the road ahead.