As the Arab Spring has continued and even grown in strength, tyrannical regimes throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Bahrain, have faced demands to step down from citizens who finally want a say in how their lives are governed. Saudi Arabia, as totalitarian as any other state in the region, has faced a protest no less brave but one with a more modest ambition. In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to drive. Eventually enough of them had enough of this injustice to take to the streets — in their cars. It may seem faintly ridiculous that in the 21st century women are being denied such basic rights but such is the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.
It may be tempting to dismiss the driving protests as somehow less important than the masses demonstrating in other Arab countries but that would be a mistake. For the women of Saudi Arabia, this is not just about driving. This protest allowed them to make their voices heard and to finally speak out against their second-class status. As a way of gaining publicity, this protest has been of immense help to Saudi women. In one attention-grabbing move, the protestors, doing nothing more than getting behind the wheel of a car, highlighted the hypocrisy and sexism of its rulers.
One person who should be remembered for her role in these protests is Manal alSherif, who conceived the idea and was arrested for violating public order when she set up a group on Facebook asking women to post photographs of themselves driving. AlSherif was picked up by the thuggish security services but the protests continued. An important point made by the protestors is that Saudi law itself does not ban women from driving; rather the clergy have issued fatwas against it and the monarchy dare not take on the clergy. For those who supported the protestors, it is important to remember that ending the de facto ban on women driving is only the start. Saudi women need to fight to ensure they have the full panoply of rights. After that, all of Saudi society needs to ensure that the clergy do not have veto power over the functioning of the state.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2011.
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