Opinion

Commentary: Saudi women fighting for right to drive

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

Imagine you’re a college-educated single parent, working in a tech job for a major oil company in, say, Houston. You make a good living, but there’s one problem. You are not allowed to drive to the grocery store. Or to work. In fact, you’re not allowed to leave your house unescorted. You can’t enjoy these freedoms, which most of your colleagues take for granted, because you are a woman.

Except for a few minor details, that describes the situation of Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi woman who used Facebook and YouTube to encourage women in her country to drive on June 17. She also posted a video of herself driving — an illegal act for Saudi women. Soon afterward, she was detained and held for more than a week. Reportedly, authorities threatened to take her 5-year-old son.

Of course, she relented. She relented just as women the world over have done when, say, an abusive husband threatened to take their children. Upon being released, she issued what should be viewed as a forced mea culpa, agreeing not to talk with media or further incite women to drive. Sharif is under orders to report back to authorities anytime they please.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Islam does not dictate the ban; it’s more of a cultural taboo, albeit one that ordinary Saudis seem increasingly ready to challenge. More than 1,300 Saudi men and women signed a petition (via Facebook) by another female human rights activist in support of Sharif.

Some sheiks have also spoken out in support of changing this attitude that keeps Saudi Arabia’s nine million women dependent on husbands, sons and strangers to drive them. This in a nation where more than 14 percent of the labor force is female. Sharif is an information technology specialist for Aramco, the national oil company.

Before her arrest, Sharif wisely promoted her plan not as a protest, but rather as a day for women to calmly claim the right to drive. She recommended that participants abide by five rules: Only women with international driver’s licenses should participate; there should be no mass driving spectacle; women should drive only when going about their normal day; women should adhere to the dress code (hijab); and volunteers should teach women to drive. Finally, she encouraged women to videotape their action and post it to YouTube. No doubt, that last request is what put the fear into authorities.

Some foreigners residing in Saudi Arabia admit to being wary of overtly supporting Sharif and other women who have dared to videotape themselves driving recently, fearful of creating the appearance that their actions are being encouraged by foreigners.

It’s beyond that. Now is the time to support a change that began from within the country. Here in the United States, people can insist that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continue to pressure the Saudi government to reform its laws to accord women basic civil rights.

The Saudi government promised the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009 to dismantle male guardianship. That system treats women as children, requiring male guardians to determine whether a woman may work, study, marry, travel or have certain medical procedures.

One lame rationale for the ban on driving is that it protects women’s virtue. But if officials push back with force, they will merely demonstrate what many know: It is the Saudi authorities from whom Saudi women need protection.

As organizers of the June 17 drive put it, in a message circulated on social media (translated from the Arabic): “Some of us barely make ends meet and cannot even afford cab fare. Some of us are the heads of households yet have no source of income except for a few hard-earned riyals that are used to pay drivers . . .

“We are your daughters, wives, sisters and mothers. We are half of society and give birth to (the other) half, yet we have been made invisible and our demands have been marginalized.” If you hear echoes in those words of those who inspired the uprisings of the “Arab spring,” you’re not alone.

Saudi authorities can probably silence Manal al-Sharif to their satisfaction. A divorced mother with a child to support, she’s vulnerable, after all. But what will happen on June 17? Will others like her step forward and flout Saudi laws against women driving? Symbolic demonstrations have proved to be extremely hazardous to Middle Eastern regimes of late. And if authorities think repressing this one with force is a good idea, they may touch off something bigger than they ever bargained for.

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