Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Driving change in Saudi Arabia

Today, without a thought, I got in my car, drove to the airport, flew to San Diego, and hailed a cab to arrive at a job interview. I did not for a moment stop to appreciate my freedom to move about the country without restraint, and without escort. Saudi women, apparently, do not enjoy this freedom.

Saudi women are not allowed to obtain driver’s licenses, nor are they allowed to hail cabs without a male escort. (Other restrictions on Saudi women include the inability to marry, divorce, or enter a public hospital without the permission of a male guardian.) The ban on travel reflects a deeply entrenched religious belief that women are prone to sin and, thus, must be restricted or escorted by a member of the allegedly morally superior sex. So, how do these women get around? They either rely on male relatives and friends, which I, personally, believe involves a constant test of patience and flexibility, or they hire drivers.

Presently, women all over Saudi Arabia are participating in an on-going mass protest against the ban on driving. These women, some with the support of progressive husbands, videotape themselves driving around in broad daylight (gasp!). The videos, posted online, draw hundreds of viewers and serve to increase awareness and draw international support against a discriminatory practice that has simply gone on for too long. Most of these brave activists are stopped, and told to go home.

One female driver, however, was sentenced to 10 lashes, ironically, just one day after King Abdullah, leader of Saudi Arabia, granted women the right to vote in the upcoming election (2015). King Abdullah has since revoked the sentence, but the ruling did not go unnoticed in the international community. Philip Luther, an Amnesty International deputy director commented: "Allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, but if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement, then the king's much trumpeted 'reforms' actually amount to very little."

Interestingly, some Saudi women do not desire reform. This begs the question—is this practice of restricting a woman’s movement an integral part of Saudi culture; are we applying our own ethnocentric vision of equality to judge the accepted practice of a foreign nation? Rowdha Yousef, a strong-minded Saudi woman, recently started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, she had collected more than 5,400 signatures in support of continuing conservative practices like the one restricting women’s movements in the public sphere. In Yousef’s opinion, activists are rejecting their cultural heritage in exchange for Western values. Notably, Yousef may be the only Saudi female leading a campaign to perpetuate restrictions against women.

Female academics in Saudi Arabia, however, recognize a need for change, while still acknowledging the importance of culture. Reem Asaad, lecturer at a college in Saudi Arabia cites the incontrovertible facts: “In ‘economic participation and opportunity’ for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work.” Put this way, it seems only practical to allow women, and men, and any person who so desires, to seek gainful employment. And the obvious right to support and sustain oneself is meaningless without the means to travel to one’s place of work. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corps., hit the nail on the head at a speech he made in Saudi Arabia in 2007. To a comment that Saudi Arabia intended to be one of the Top 10 nations in the world in technology, Bill Gates responded, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”


Caitlin said...

I think it is interesting that many in the Western world can automatically condemn the behavior and laws of Saudi Arabia with respect to its women. If we were to step back in history in the Western world, we would encounter many of the same laws and behaviors with respect to women as well. Sometimes I think we and the Saudi women could make more progress if we attempted to acknowledge that all (modern) cultures have gone through a similar experience instead of beginning with our differences, and condemning each other because of them. This was a very well-thought-out and well-written post. Thanks!

Alejandro said...

Megan, you asked elsewhere what we can do to help the women in places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen? I think there is little that we in the West can do, apart from doing the best we can to raise awareness about this issue in order to pressure those governments (in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other places) to introduce fundamental changes, though it isn't clear that this will actually be effective. The truth is that if significant change is to take place, it will be determined by what occurs inside those countries. The recent protests by Saudi women are a good example of how peaceful civil disobedience can get people's attention and help to sway attitudes within the kingdom.

Rose Sawyer said...

Megan, after reading your article I became curious about whether Islam and feminism are fundamentally irreconcilable or whether they can find common ground. On Academic Search Premiere, I queried "Islam / Feminism / Women" and quickly came up with a promising article: "Engaging with Islam to promote women's rights: exploring opportunities and challenging assumptions," by Nida Kirmani and Isabel Phillips (hereinafter "Engaging").

The article discussed an "Islamist Feminist Approach" that can be taken to promote feminism while staying within an Islamic framework. According to "Engaging," one line of thinking goes that "Islam is not the cause of women's oppression, but that 'culture' and 'patriarchy' are the real culprits and that women must reclaim religion from men in order to uncover the truly egalitarian underpinnings of Islam."

This struck me as promising. Law school has shown me that texts can be interpreted in innumerable ways, and adherence to "strict" language is usually an excuse, rather than real reason behind the way that those in power behave.

The article provides concrete examples of how the Qur'anic principles can be used for, rather than against, women. For example, "[t]he Al Faruq Welfare Society, which works in Palestinian refugee camps, uses the Qur'anic principle of himaya, or protection of the woman" -- the same principle that is used to prevent women in Saudi Arabia from driving -- "as the basis for arguing against gender-based violence, and sabr (patience) to counter the practice of verbal and physical abuse."

Although religion often seems adverse to feminism, I think the project of "ending religion" is as unrealistic as "ending society." If feminism's goal is to reform society, then it seems to me that reforming religion -- without throwing it out altogether -- must be a part of that.

S said...

Adrien Wing spoke a bit on the West’s role in the feminist movement in the Middle East. She stated that investing in the region that has an important role in the future of the world is necessary, and that women’s rights are at the heart of it. I think you tying in the story of Bill Gates’s comment hits that point.

I echo some my colleagues’ comments. It is important that as activists privileged to live in the United States, we maintain humility. At one point, the United States had laws that severely inhibited women’s abilities based on notions of gender. It was only through a long struggle, the same struggle Saudi Women are persevering through, did women in the U.S. secure more rights. I think it is important that we remember that there were some women who fought with the equal vigor to maintain the status quo of women, just like the women in Saudi Arabia.

I agree with Professor Wing. Investing in the region is important. However, I am unsure of what form that investment should in.

tomindavis said...

It is very hard to add to what has been written, but I had to comment all the same. Great post, friend! It flowed nicely, well-written, and driven by passion.

I was once told that, when apprehending foreign countries' cultural practices, we should be careful not to discredit practices that don't quite fit with our enlightened notions of equality, etc. They say that sometimes those countries are built around fundamentally different precepts, and that moral relativism demands that we approach these norms with some equivocation. To which I say (at least in this instance), BOLLOCKS!

Here we have a culture employing the same kind of paternalism and control used against blacks in South Africa, blacks and women in America. Holy scripture merely dresses this wrongheadedness in the supposed sanction of religious authority.

I am glad that there are gradula steps, "on the streets," toward female empowerment. The small steps are important. And pressure from the international community is timely and apt. Yes, our humility requires that we look back to our not-so-recent past. Yet is the lessons we learned from that past that make our teaching that much more valuable. A recovering addict can demand change of a current one, and need not be held back by the damning fact of his past and unacceptable conduct.