Columnists > Voices

Taking the wheels

Saudi women are driving up the heat on 'Arab Spring' protests

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

I know a woman in Iraq who became the first female driver in her province. Boys threw rocks at her as she wheeled through the streets. It was 1992, she was 25 and single, empowered by eight brothers in a family where she was the only sister. She told me, "I took different routes through the city each day, just to push the idea." By 2003 she had become the first female cabinet minister in Iraq's post-Saddam government. Change happens.

But while most Arab nations eventually warmed to the idea that women could drive, one still refuses to issue female driver's licenses: Saudi Arabia. When Saudi women last organized protests, in 1990, they led to the country's leading Islamic clerics issuing a fatwa in 1991 making the ban a religious edict.

Ten years later, the ban has hit both moral and practical hurdles. Saudi fathers and brothers, tired of driving women everywhere, have hired Indonesian and other migrant workers to serve as drivers. But that runs into the Wahhabi regime's problem with gender "mixing"-women alone in cars with men who aren't family. One Saudi cleric tried to solve that by having women breastfeed their drivers (he later clarified that he meant giving them breast milk from a cup) because under Islamic law a male is a blood relative of the woman who breastfeeds him.

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Saudi women-better educated and more socially networked than ever before-have had enough. In May 32-year-old Manal al-Sherif posted a video of herself driving. She claims she's not breaking the law (she has an international driver's license), and that the ban leads to worse crimes: She launched her campaign after being stranded and harassed on a street at night when her brother forgot to pick her up. Saudi authorities arrested her and held her for 10 days over the video. On Facebook women around the world took up her cause, posting photos of themselves driving with placards on their cars reading "I drive with Manal."

It's not all about driving. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot vote, they cannot travel without permission from a male guardian, they cannot check into a hotel unaccompanied, and they cannot have surgery unless a male family member signs a consent form.

"Rain starts with a drop," Manal says. On June 17 dozens of women in Riyadh took to the wheel in organized defiance of the driving ban, and by June 19 over 200 women had applied for driver's licenses. They recorded their experiences on YouTube and elsewhere. "So sick of the backseat," one wrote. Male relatives joined: "Very proudly sat in the passenger's seat in Jeddah while my wife drove the car," Mohannad Al-Sowaidan posted via Twitter.

It's also not all about women. What's striking about this campaign is that it has a point. For months we've watched Arabs and North Africans take the streets in a general miasma of discontent-is it about food prices? jobs? personal liberty? Lacking a clear agenda and a plan for the future, they've often hurt themselves-and opened the door for extremists like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to snatch legitimacy from justifiable grievances.

The Saudi women, by contrast, are canny. They've staged a protest that doesn't look like all the others. And they may have found a way to make the West feel their pain-pressuring car makers like Subaru to "publicly pull out of Saudi Arabia until such time as women are allowed to drive."

"Arab Spring" protests against autocratic regimes have stagnated into summer swelter precisely because they have an undefined long way to go. "The human rights of few peoples on earth have been so neglected by the larger world as those of the Muslim Middle East," noted Catholic theologian and scholar Michael Novak in a Princeton speech in May. "The pressure of this intense suffering," he said, is powerful incentive to find "a new politics of liberty and dignity in the Middle East." Novak predicts that by 2020 "rough and painful human experience" will lead Islamic nations to cry "for Democracy, Human Rights, Individual Liberty, and the Dignity of Every Muslim Man, Woman, and Child."

Rain starts with a drop.

Email Mindy Belz


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