Saudi women will get behind the wheel and drive on Friday as part of an organized act of civil disobedience protesting the country’s informal ban against women driving. Women2Drive, a right-to-drive campaign in Saudi Arabia, is the force behind the movement.
Last month, Women2Drive gained momentum and international attention when Manal al-Sharif, a 32 year-old IT security expert, was arrested and jailed for nine days for posting a YouTube video that showed her driving in the eastern city of Khobar. Sharif, an organizer for Women2Drive, was released on May 30 after she pledged not to take part in the campaign.
In an interview with The Guardian, Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women’s rights campaigner and friend of Sharif, who filmed her as she drove, said she was certain Sharif was told to drop the issue as a condition of her release.
“Usually when they are released, they are warned not to get in touch with anybody, not to talk to the media and not to get involved in any activity,” she said. “I am sure they told her we shouldn’t continue with this issue. They told me that and the message was clear to me. I am sure for her it was even stronger.”
In the video, Sharif talks about the inconvenience, humiliation and real safety concerns of not being permitted to drive and having to rely on a male driver or taxi. Nesrine Malik, who writes for The Guardian, also explained the perils of being a woman in Saudi Arabia:
There is nothing empowering or protective about not being allowed to drive. While I was living in Saudi Arabia, in a family of five females with no man in the household, we were permanently at the mercy of our driver to run even the most basic of errands.
If he was late, indisposed or unable to tend to us for some reason, the only alternative was to hail a taxi – a very unpleasant prospect for a woman in a Saudi city. To stand on the side of the road in the city of Riyadh waiting for a taxi to arrive meant braving the harassing calls and jibes from passing motorists, and to be alone in a car with a cab driver in a country where that is rather rare posed its own risks in terms of the liberties the driver feels he may be entitled to take. Sharif herself claimed she was harassed by her driver. Needless to say, there is no public transport available for women.
Videos of Saudi women’s activism and civil disobedience are inspiring and refreshing since the majority of media images in the West of Middle Eastern women are essentializing, exoticized and reek of Orientalism. Grassroots, indigenous feminist campaigns like Women2Drive refute the idea that Saudi women are passive, veiled victims in need of a Western feminist intervention from their patriarchal society.
Instead, American feminists are also organizing online letter-writing campaigns, rallies at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington D.C. and e-mailing their own driving videos to firstname.lastname@example.org in support of Women2Drive.
What are you doing to support Saudi women’s activism?