Saudi Women Risk All for Small Rights

Saudi cleric: women "will die, God willing," for defying the driving fatwa.

After centuries of methodical Islamic gender apartheid that holds Saudi women in virtual enforced slavery as possessions of men, slight signs of rebellion are being seen, as many women are defying the fatwa against women drivers.

In order to understand why recent driving protests are an enormous step forward for Saudi women, one must comprehend the brutal world in which Saudi women are forced to live.

According to Freedom House, Saudi women lack all equality, are denied benefits of citizenship, their employment is limited, and laws are designed to discriminate against women. This is because a female is not considered a full person. Thus, a woman can be arrested for eating in public without a male family member, an act considered immoral and punishable in court. If a woman marries a non-Saudi, her children are considered foreigners. In order for Saudi women to receive identity cards, virtue, through state officials, must be proven in court.

According to the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, Saudi women are forbidden from studying biology and chemistry, and girls are banned from playing sports in school, something the CDHR reports is creating serious health problems in women. Saudi women are also forbidden from studying abroad.

Amnesty International reports that Saudi laws are purposely intended to discriminate against women for the purpose of subjugation. Conspicuously, for example, unmarried women are forbidden from establishing a business without a male benefactor. Also, women are prohibited from riding in the front of public buses, “even when the buses are empty.”

Women in this brutal regime are forced into arranged marriages—not by mothers, but male family members who have absolute authority over Saudi women’s lives. Women rarely initiate lawsuits, in part because of strict laws stipulating that two male family members must speak on behalf of women as witnesses. Even then, women are at the mercy of men, who provide help depending on whether or not the case brings shame to the family.

While Saudi women, like many women in Muslim countries, live under harsh laws constraining them as prisoners in their very homes, Saudi Arabia’s laws are more brutal than those of other Arab countries. Saudi laws forbid women to go out in public unaccompanied by male family escorts. Any woman caught in public without a male family member is automatically accused of prostitution under Saudi law and must be imprisoned. As punishment for such “crimes,” Saudi woman are made to endure physical as well as mental torture before being sentenced to severe lashings or death.

Furthermore, it is illegal for Saudi women to remove the veil in public, or even to appear in public without being accompanied by male relatives. Violations of such strictures can invite rape. When rape occurs, only the female victim bears the sin and shame of the act: rape is declared a crime of the woman. Under Saudi laws, women must have four witnesses to the rape or the court throws the case out.  And women’s rights in court are only worth half that of a man. If the shame of rape is exacerbated, it is the victim who may incur the extreme penalty of execution.

Freedom House also reported on the 2002 tragedy involving the Saudi veiling laws and a deadly girls’ school fire. Rescue attempts were prevented because many girls fleeing the blaze were not wearing their head scarves. Thus, firefighters “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties.”

A Safe World For Women reports that economic abuse is virtually starving the poorest sector of divorced Saudi women. These impoverished women are denied inheritances, forbidden education, jobs, and money needed to feed children, of whom they are only allowed custody until the child reaches age seven. Making their lives worse, women cannot “legali[ze] a contract or undergo medical treatment without the assent of a close male relative—father, husband, grandfather, brother or son.”

Given the extent of this oppression, it is astonishing to learn that, in recent years, some Saudi women have decided to risk their lives in order to defy the tyrannical Saudi norm depriving woman of the elementary right to drive a car.

Acts of defiance against this Saudi norm first surfaced in the early 1990s when Saudi women protested a fatwa — a religious ruling that does not appear in the Saudi law books — that forbids women from driving, even though at the time an appreciable number of Saudi women had a driver’s license from having lived in Western countries. Long-enduring the disparity in conventions, some women suddenly rebelled, expressing their defiance by driving alone through the capital city of Riyadh.

Restrictive driving laws are an extension of misogynist constraints stipulating that women must never travel alone without male family escorts, a precaution instituted by authorities for the stated reason that women might become tempted to interact and converse with male strangers. In fact, under Muslim religious law codes— the Sharia — if a woman speaks to a male stranger in public, she sullies herself and her family. This also includes forbidding her from talking to male co-workers.  Such behavior, judged disgraceful, is measured worse than criminal activity, and is punishable by death.

By the year 2007, women’s rights activists pushed against the driving fatwa, petitioning the king to remove the law. However, this was to no avail. But today, four years later, Saudi women are standing up again, fighting to change the brutal repression of their country.

In May 2011, 32-year-old Manal Al-Sharif reignited the 90s protest campaign against women driving. She videotaped herself driving alone while speaking against the regime’s laws. She posted the video on Youtube, declaring women in Saudi Arabia hold PhDs, are college professors, yet they don’t know how to drive, because it’s forbidden. She noted that the situation is so bad that when husbands are away for long periods, some women have gone so far as to ask their male children — in one instance, a ten-year-old male child— to drive them to buy food.

Al-Sharif declared that she is tired of the fatwa and refuses “to be humiliated” any more by “begging” for a male family driver, as well as “begging” them to accompany her when she must have the inspection renewed on a car that happens to be “in [her] name.” Al-Sharif declared, “We want to change the country.”

Al-Sharif, who had learned to drive in the United States, was quickly arrested after the video was posted on the web. She was detained in prison as a criminal for 10 days on charges of defaming Saudi Arabia’s reputation and rousing public judgment against Islamic laws. Only after she was forced to sign a document stating she will never operate a vehicle again was she released. The arrest incident, however, did not fade from public notice.

The arrest of Al-Sharif sparked outrage from human rights groups and inspired resistance in the hearts of women living inside the most oppressive dynastic monarchy in the Arab world. Saudi women declared they want “the right of transportation” without the humiliation of being forced to use the services of taxi drivers. One woman asserted, “[W]e [women] are capable of doing things on our own” and “wish to live our daily lives with dignity.” Another woman was inspired to drive for 45 minutes through the capital city of Riyadh, because, as she said, “I woke up today believing with every part of me that this is my right. I woke up believing this is my duty, and I was no longer afraid.”

The protest by women against driving restrictions is monumental. In the context of Saudi gender apartheid, such defiance by women can be expected to bring a harsh response from authorities. That some women are willing to stand against such penalties speaks to the fact that something new is in the wind, perhaps brought about by increased communication with the outside world, enabled by the Internet and other electronic media. Wajiha Huwaidar, the woman who video-taped Al-Sharif, observed,

“Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars on the same day to denounce the ban. Manal was capable of reaching a much bigger number of people because of Facebook and Twitter. I remember in 2007 trying to rally my friends by email and over the phone: it was a much longer process.”

This rebellion, of course, has not been greeted by Saudi authorities without alarm. To Saudi religious leaders, women driving is unsettling and heralds frightening change. Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak said women will “tempt God’s wrath” and “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”

Saudi women are now protesting their subjugation; they are standing up for their rights as human beings. They have a long fight ahead, but one hopes that by winning this small battle, it will be a portent of change in Middle Eastern and Islamic culture writ large.