Saudi Women: “I Will Drive Myself Starting June 17”

في العربية

Us women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are the ones who will lead this society towards change. While we failed to deliver through our voices, we will not fail to deliver through our actions. We have been silent and under the mercy of our guardian (muhram) or foreign driver for too long. Some of us barely make ends meet and cannot even afford cab fare. Some of us are the heads of households yet have no source of income except for a few hard-earned [Saudi] Riyals that are used to pay drivers. Then there are those of us who do not have a muhram to look after our affairs and are forced to ask strangers for help. We are even deprived of public transportation, our only salvation from being under the mercy of others. We are your daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. We are half of society and give birth to [the other] half, yet we have been made invisible and our demands have been marginalized. We have been deliberately excluded from your plans! Therefore, the time has come to take the initiative. We will deliver a letter of complaint to our father the King of Humanity and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calling on him to support the Women of June 17.

We have searched for laws that prohibit women in Saudi Arabia from exercising their right to drive their own vehicle but have not found anything that points to such [a prohibition] in Saudi traffic laws. Therefore, what we will do cannot be considered a violation of the law. We therefore have decided that beginning on Friday the 15th of Rajab, 1432, which corresponds to the 17th of June, 2011:

  • Every women in possession of an international driver’s license or one from another country will begin driving her car herself whether to reach her place of work, drop her children off at school, or attend to her daily needs.
  • We will take photographs and videotapes of ourselves driving our cars and post them to our Facebook page in order to support our cause: I will drive starting June 17
  • We will adhere to the dress code (hijab) while driving.
  • We will obey the traffic laws and will not challenge the authorities if we are stopped for questioning.
  • If we are pulled over we will firmly demand to be informed of which laws have been violated. Until now there is not one traffic law that prohibits a woman from driving her own vehicle herself.
  • We do not have destructive goals and will not congregate or protest, nor will we raise slogans. We have no leaders or foreign conspirators. We are patriots and we love this country and will not accept that which encroaches on its security and safety. All that is involved [in this matter] is that we will begin to exercise our legitimate right.
  • We will not stop exercising this right until you find us a solution. We have spoken out on too many occasions and no one has listened to us. The time for solutions has come. We want women’s driving schools. We want Saudi drivers’ licenses [for women] like all other countries in the world. We want to live a complete form of citizenship without the humiliation and degradation that we are [currently] subjected to everyday because of our dependence on a driver.
  • We will launch volunteer campaigns to offer free driving lessons for women beginning on the date that this announcement is issued and we wish for everyone to support us.

To review the traffic law in Saudi Arabia: http://bit.ly/lj60Od

Section Four: Driving License, page 47
List 1-4 of Driving Violations: pages 117-121

 نحن النساء في المملكة العربية السعودية من سيقود هذا المجتمع نحو التغيير. وحين فشلنا في ايصال صوتنا، لن نفشل في ايصال أفعالنا. كفانا سكوتاً ومذلة لكل رجل من محرم أو أجنبي عنا. منا من لاتملك أجرة تاكسي وتعيش على الكفاف. ومنا من تعول أسرتها وليس لها عائل غير ريالات بسيطة دفعت فيها جهدها وعرقها لتكون لقمة سائغة للسائقين. ومنا من ليس لها من يقوم بأمرها فتلظت بنار السؤال لكل غريب. محرومين حتى من مواصلات عامة تكفينا شرهم. نحن بناتكم ونساؤكم وأخواتكم وأمهاتكم. نحن نصف المجتمع ونلد نصفه. لكن تم تغييبنا وتهميش مطالبنا. سقطنا من خططكم عمداً! لذلك حان وقت أخذ زمام المبادرة. وسنقوم برفع خطاب تظلم لوالدنا ملك الانسانية خادم الحرمين الشريفين لمسانده نساء ١٧ يونيو

تم البحث عن أي قانون يمنع المرأة في السعودية من ممارسة حقها في قيادة مركبتها بنفسها ولم نجد أي شيء يشير لذلك في نظام المرور السعودي*. لذلك لايعتبر ما سنفعله خرقاً للقانون. لذلك قررنا أنه وبدأً من الجمعه 15 رجب 1432 الموافق 17 يونيو 2011 التالي

 كل امرأه تملك رخصة قيادة دولية أو من دولة أخرى ستبدأ بقيادة سيارتها بنفسها لتقضية أي مشوار لها سواء للوصول لمكان عملها، ايصال أطفالها للمدرسة، أو قضاء حوائجها اليومية

  on.fb.me/mbWaHq :سنوثق قيادتنا لسياراتنا بأنفسنا بالصوت والصورة ونشرها على صفحتنا بالفيسبوك لدعم قضيتنا

 سنلتزم بحشمتنا وحجابنا حين قيادة سياراتنا

 سنلتزم بقوانين المرور ولن نتحدى السلطات إذا تم ايقافنا للمساءلة

 إذا تم ايقافنا للمساءلة نتمسك بحق المطالبة أن نعرف أي القوانين تم خرقها. لحد الآن لايوجد اي قانون في نظام المرور يمنع المرأة من قيادة مركبتها بنفسها

 ليس لدينا أهداف تخريبية. ولن نتجمهر أو نتظاهر أو نرفع شعارات وليس لدينا قادة أو جهات أجنبيه نحن وطنيات ونحب هذا الوطن ولن نرض بما يمس أمنه أو سلامته. كل مافي الأمر أننا سنبدأ بممارسة حق مشروع

 لن نتوقف عن ممارسة هذا الحق حتى تجدوا لنا حلاً. تكلمنا كثيراً ولم يسمعنا أحد، جاء وقت الحلول. نريد مدارس نسائيه لتعليم القيادة. نريد رخص قيادة سعودية أسوة بكل دول العالم. نريد أن نعيش مواطنة كاملة بدون الذل والمهانة التي نتعرض لها كل يوم لأننا مربوطين برقبة سائق

 سنبدأ باقامة حملات تطوعية لتعليم النساء القيادة مجاناً بدأ من تاريخ نشر هذا الإعلان ونرجو مساندة الجميع

:لمراجعة نظام المرور في السعودية

http://bit.ly/lj60Od

الباب الرابع: رخص القيادة صفحة 47

جداول المخالفات 1-4 صفحة 117 -121

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Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia

by: Katherine Zoeff

JIDDA — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.

The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission.

Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.

But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”

Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.

Public separation of the sexes is a strongly distinctive feature of Saudi Arabia, making it perhaps a logical area for fierce debate. Since women have such a limited role in Saudi public life, however, it is somewhat surprising that it is their rights that have become a matter of open contention in a society that keeps most debate hidden.

Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.

Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.

She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.

“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.

Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has responsibility for and authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.

Ms. Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. Guardian rules are such that she could start her campaign, for instance, without seeking her guardian’s permission.

She did not wish to speak in detail about her divorce but noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children through their 18th birthdays. She said she had founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, without any special connections, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.

Activists like Ms. Huwaider, Ms. Yousef believes, are susceptible to foreign influences because of personal problems with men. “If she is suffering because of her guardian, she can go to a Shariah court that could remove the responsibility for her from that man and transfer it to someone who is more trustworthy.”

To an outsider, Ms. Yousef’s effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, and headscarves, outside their own homes.

Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced via brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorce themselves. Fathers may marry off 10-year-old daughters, a practice defended by the highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

The separation of genders in Saudi public life is difficult to overstate — there are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies. Members of the hai’a, the governmental Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrol to ensure that ikhtilat, or “mixing” of the sexes, does not occur.

There are a few places where men and women do work together — medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.

Jidda and Riyadh host stand-up comedy shows where young people do mix — albeit summoned with only hours’ notice via cellphone in an attempt to dodge policing. At the popular Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh, families were allowed to visit together for the first time last year, instead of on separate men’s and women’s days.

Where conservatives like Ms. Yousef attribute the recent volubility of rights campaigners to Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing, and that increasing freedoms for Saudi women appear to be cautiously supported by King Abdullah himself.

Both sides of the debate tend to claim the king’s backing. Recent history suggests that the sympathies of the 85-year-old monarch — whose feelings are never explicitly outlined in public — lie with the reformers. If so, he seems out in front of most of his youthful subjects (an estimated two-thirds of the 29 million Saudis are under 25).

The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, a situation that was unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed a woman to deputy minister rank, a first for Saudi Arabia. Schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, but the opening last September of a coeducational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.

A senior cleric was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show. Two months later, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca’s branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told The Okaz, a newspaper, that gender mixing was “part of normal life.” In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.

Whether it is the king’s support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women’s rights divide, although Ms. Yousef’s is so far thought to be the only conservative effort led by a woman.

Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, called 2009 “the year of the campaigns” for women in Saudi Arabia. Female Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as an effort to ban child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.

Reem Asaad lectures in the finance department at Dar al-Hekma College in Jidda. She organized a nationwide boycott of lingerie shops that employ only men, choosing lingerie because even Saudi conservatives can agree that it may be humiliating for a woman to buy underwear from a male clerk.

Her ultimate aim is to broaden women’s job opportunities. Outside her university office, where her all-female students wait for meetings with their teacher, hangs a photocopy of the country page for Saudi Arabia from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 by the World Economic Forum. 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,” Ms. Asaad said. “This is about opening doors for women in different sectors of the economy.”

Ms. Huwaider, who so incensed Ms. Yousef with her attempts to cross into Bahrain, is a veteran campaigner, famously seen driving illegally in a YouTube clip in 2008. Now she distributes small lengths of black elastic to Saudi women, asking them to wear the ribbons until Saudi laws treat them as adults.

Soon, she said in an interview, she plans a campaign for the Saudi government to put in place a law requiring men who wish to take a second wife to obtain permission from the first wife. Morocco has such a law, which Ms. Huwaider believes could serve as a useful model.

Ms. Huwaider emphatically rejects Ms. Yousef’s characterization that she attacks the guardianship system because of personal problems. Her male guardian, she said, is her ex-husband, and they have excellent relations.

She did agree, notionally, with Ms. Yousef’s claim that many if not most Saudi men try to be fair and caring guardians. “Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry,” Ms. Huwaider said, “but it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”

Ms. Huwaider lives at what she said was considerable expense — the equivalent of $16,000 a year — in the guarded compound of the Saudi Aramco oil company. She is an employee of Aramco, working in a department that runs further education and employee development, and took the rare step, for a Saudi, of moving into the compound in 2007, after her campaign for the right to drive provoked several death threats. Sometimes, she conceded, it is frightening. But she has grown so accustomed to it that “sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, I didn’t get any threats today.”’

Over tea and curried snack mix at her home in Riyadh, Ms. Fassi pronounced herself “very optimistic” about the women’s campaigns for more freedom. They break the censure on expression, and the list of topics that Saudi writers may address without being censored has also expanded very rapidly, Ms. Fassi said.

“The media is not that free, still, but it is much better than it was a few years ago. Nowadays we talk openly about minors’ marriages, about rape and incest, about cases brought against the religious police.”

And, of course, the activism produces backlash. “This campaign of Rowdha Yousef’s is a reaction,” she said — unaware that Ms. Yousef, when contacted by this reporter, expressed surprise that a journalist had come from New York to meet her. Ms. Yousef said more than 30 articles discussing her campaign had appeared in the Saudi press, but no Saudi reporter was willing to meet her, and coverage was mainly what she called mocking opinion columns.

Ahmad al-Omran, a pharmacist who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans, points out that, in the absence of opinion polling or free elections, it is hard to measure the popularity or representative nature of women’s campaigns. None have produced even an official response from the Saudi leadership.

“What do they achieve?” Mr. Omran asked. “Changing laws comes from higher up, not lower down.”

Even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Ms. Fassi explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K.,” Ms. Fassi said.

The extent of this trauma may be difficult for outsiders to understand, Ms. Fassi said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”

Noura Abdulrahman, an Education Ministry employee who recently founded an after-school Islamic studies program aimed at teenage girls in Riyadh, said she tries to be generous toward the “liberaliyeen” — Saudi conservatives give the English word an Arabic plural and frequently employ it as a term of disparagement.

“The liberals’ motives might be good — they might want to make Saudi Arabia competitive with Western societies — but they’re failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society,” Ms. Abdulrahman said. “In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return — they only want to be with me.”

While Ms. Abdulrahman was discussing guardianship with a visitor, a neighbor, Umm Muhammad, dropped in for a morning tea. She proudly volunteered that her own guardian, her husband, was out of town but they were in constant touch by phone. In fact, she had just called him for permission to visit Ms. Abdulrahman.

“The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love,” she said. “People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.”

Eman Fahad is a 31-year-old linguistics graduate student and mother of three. In her blog, she called Ms. Yousef’s campaign an effort to “stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults.”

Even if most Saudi men are caring guardians, Ms. Fahad said, until women have full adult rights under the law, there will be abuses. She said she resented conservatives’ portrayal of Saudi women’s rights activists as spoiled and frivolous. She spoke of women she had met who had been forced to quit work they loved because their guardianship had been transferred to a new, less understanding man, and of women with no legal recourse when estranged husbands snatched their children away.

“These are the women they are fighting for,” Ms. Fahad said of the campaigners. “They’re not campaigning because they really want to be allowed to go crazy in some nightclub.”

Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”

Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders

by: Farzaneh Milani

On the surface, when a group of Saudi women used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize a mass mobile protest defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving, it may have seemed less dramatic than demonstrators facing bullets and batons while demanding regime change in nearby countries. But underneath, the same core principles — self-determination and freedom of movement — have motivated both groups. The Saudi regime understands the gravity of the situation, and it is moving decisively to contain it by stopping the protest scheduled for June 17.

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets — and the right to enter and leave them at will — belong to men. A woman who trespasses is either regarded as a sinful “street-walker” or expected to cover herself in her abaya, a portable house. Should she need to get around town, she can do so in a taxi, with a chauffeur (there are 750,000 of them) or with a man related to her by marriage or blood behind the wheel.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran could not implement similarly draconian driving laws after the 1979 revolution, given that women had driven cars there for decades, the theocratic regime did denounce women riding bikes or motorcycles as un-Islamic and sexually provocative. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed in 1999 that “women must avoid anything that attracts strangers, so riding bicycles or motorcycles by women in public places involves corruption and is forbidden.”

The Saudi regime, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military junta in Sudan and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, ordains the exclusion of women from the public sphere. It expects women to remain in their “proper place.”

Indeed, the rulers in Saudi Arabia are the most gender-segregated in the world today. In official ceremonies, and in countless photographs, posters and billboards, the royal family seems to be composed solely of men.

This desire to deny women entrance into the public arena is inaccurately presented as a religious mandate. Yet there is no basis for such exclusion in the Koran. On the contrary, in the early years of Islam, women were a vital presence in Muslim communities. They attended mosques, engaged in public debates and got involved in decision-making processes. Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, commanded an army of men while riding on a camel. If Muslim women could ride camels 14 centuries ago, why shouldn’t they drive cars today? Which Koranic injunction prohibits them from driving?

Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector, and making it difficult for them to fully exercise the rights Islam grants them to own and manage their own property. It is about denying women the basic human right to move about freely.

That is why the women defying the ban on motorized mobility are in fact demanding an eventual overhaul of the entire Saudi political system. They want not just to drive but to remap the political geography of their country.

These women know the value of a car key. Like the man who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square, like the unprecedented number of women participating in protests across the Middle East and North Africa, the Saudi women’s campaign for the right to drive is a harbinger of a new era in the region.

It may require decades to see an end to the Middle East’s gender apartheid and the political reconfigurations that would necessarily follow. One thing is certain though: the presence of women and men demonstrating side by side in the streets of Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria is a sign of more seismic upheavals ahead. Old categories have broken down and the traditional distribution of power and space is no longer viable.

The women demonstrating for the right to drive in Riyadh are seasoned negotiators of confined spaces and veteran trespassers of closed doors and iron gates. They are a moderating, modernizing force to be reckoned with — and an antidote to extremism.

Their refusal to remain silent and invisible or to relinquish their rights as citizens is an act of civil disobedience and moral courage. Their protest, and those of their sisters across the Middle East, represent a revolution within revolutions — and a turning point in the contemporary history of Islam.

Farzaneh Milani, chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.”