Saudi women behind the wheel: what the movement is up against

women-to-drive-saudi-arabiaArtwork from the WOMEN2DRIVE movement

It is 6:00 am local Bahraini time, and the view from that narrow ovular plane window to my right is refreshingly dry, hot, and homely. I am indeed escaping the stormy Canberra winter for a short visit to my parents in Saudi Arabia. As we descend on the dusty desert landing strip, I think how ironic it is that the Saudi woman was able to fly a plane before she could drive a car in her home country.

Hanadi Zakaria Al Hindi, born in the holy city of Mecca, is the first Saudi woman to become a commercial airline pilot. So technically, she’s not steering the wings of any national Saudi Airline, but she does for a commercial one, and its director has an interesting background of his own. Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, of Lebanese-Saudi origin, is something of an entrepreneurial feather-ruffler in the Arabian Peninsula. He ranks in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential in the World, and while he does hail from the sprawling royal family, he has amassed his own commercial empire, which imparts his progressive style on those whom his business ventures touch paths with.

Thus a cursory glance shows we cannot assume Saudi society to be a monolith of conservatism, but like any society, home to segments vying for change. In her seminal study ‘A Most Masculine State’, Saudi born academic Madawi Al Rasheed explores the gender debate, and where women sit alongside it. Those comfortable in the dictates of the present, view forces for change as tampering with a holy way of life, which has been carefully preserved, despite the currents of change to which many in the region have succumbed. Others – and here is a strain I became intimately acquainted with in my high school years – are frustrated with the strictures of a society that delves so deeply into the personal.

The fact that Zakaria may now be flying above the Arabian Peninsula, but unable to drive through its desert highways, is reflective of the fundamental barriers to reform in this area. By these barriers I’m referring to two often-allied, but at other times competing strains of authority within the Kingdom. The Saudi government is comprised of a political (monarchical) wing and a religious one. The latter is known in Arabic as the Matawwa, or by their formal title which translates to “the committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.” In other words, the religious police. At the time of its founding, Ibn Saud was successful in uniting a hitherto highly fragmented Arabian Peninsula. Integral to his success was a mutually beneficial pact, made with the Najdi men of religion – the Al Wahhab. The austere brand of Islam espoused by the latter provided Ibn Saud with the legitimacy to conquer a people militated against unison, and for the Al Wahhab, facilitated the spread of their ultra-conservative teachings. This arrangement formed the pillars of Saudi Society, and hence explains the Kingdom’s impregnable marriage of mosque and state.

In its 84 years of existence, the Saudi state has borne witness to several attempts by the women’s movement to achieve vehicular autonomy. In the backdrop of a society dishevelled by its government’s confusing support for the US in the Gulf War, the flood of foreign journalism provided a shining opportunity for women to direct attention towards their domestic frustrations. Madawi Al Rasheed observes the Gulf War to have created a climate of Intifah (Openness); with 1500 foreign reporters on Saudi soil, Saudi women took to the roads. In November 1990, 45 of them drove their cars into the heart of Riyadh. The act of defiance was met with arrest (by the religious police), suspension of employment, confiscation of passports and release upon guarantees from their male guardians.

More recent developments have the seen the term Women2drive being coined as the popular reference to the movement. Its informal tone and hashtag-friendly form is indicative of the increasing role of social media alongside domestic lobbying in this post Gulf-War wave of activism. Wajeha Al Huwaider is co-founder of the NGO Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, which in 2007 submitted a 1,100 word petition submitted to King Saud. Interestingly, it is the online dimension which has given the movement a renewed vitality. Stealthy YouTube uploads of women driving on Saudi roads and social media activism has replaced the 1990’s role of the foreign journalist. A quick Google search will provide you with a plethora of results hailing straight from the keyboards and cameras of local women. On international women’s day in 2008, scores of women recorded themselves behind the wheel. The result was a mirror image of the responses that took place 26 years earlier. Arrests, and perhaps most shockingly a sentence of 10 lashes in a Jeddah criminal court. It was later retracted.

In the context of its founding and powerful religious authorities, the Kingdom’s resistance to change begins to make sense. This, however, does not justify it. Female mobility gives rise to greater female accessibility in the public space… and thus open the doors for uncontrolled mingling. In a country where gender interactions are hawkishly monitored, such opportunities threaten to open a fissure in the fabric of society. My opinion is affirmed by the 1990 Grand Mufti’s response to the movement – driving would expose women to “temptation” and lead to “social chaos”. It is deeply unsettling to know that despite all the above, the Saudi government has ratified in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (2000). Moreover, 13 years on, the Saudi Governmental Human Rights Commission reiterated that Saudi Women are not subject to systemic discrimination. Nevertheless, in the time elapsing between and beyond such hollow rhetoric for change, the frequency and level of women’s activism has grown steadily. Moreover, the advent of social media is coupled with a population whose majority is in its youth – a female youth – increasingly exposed to the contrasting circumstances of women outside of their world. I argue the seeds of change have been sown. I implore everyone to follow these hashtags and internet uploads. Each view and retweet is an act of support emboldening the movement to push on.

See Hiba’s blog at kangaroosandkaftans.com