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The road to freedom

June 26, 2013

IT was the summer of thwarted protest in Saudi Arabia. In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif, the woman who dared to drive and then posted a video of her rebellious act on YouTube, was imprisoned.

In June, Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman married to a Saudi, sat alone in her apartment with her children. Her husband who was, in Morin’s account, extremely abusive towards her, had left for a weeklong trip.

Morin did not have enough food and drinking water for herself and her three small children. She also had no way of getting out of the apartment which her husband often locked from the outside when he left.

Morin called Wajeha al-Huwaider, a well-known women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia who had been instrumental in earlier efforts to advocate for Saudi women’s right to drive. She, along with another female activist, went to Morin’s flat in Dammam to help her. They were never able to.

Waiting for them was the Saudi police. The women were arrested and charged with kidnapping and “inciting a woman against her husband”. They were eventually released on bail, but the criminal case against them would last nearly two years.

Finally, on June 15 this year, there was a sentence: while they were cleared of kidnapping, both women were found guilty of “takhbib” or the crime of “inciting a woman against her husband”. They will have to serve 10 months in prison and face travel restrictions for two years.

The result is not surprising; the issue of women’s rights, particularly the campaign to allow Saudi women to drive, has been the flashpoint of many similar battles between female activists and the regime there.

All the women leading the campaign have faced dire consequences. Both Sharif and Huwaider have either faced or currently face prison terms for trying to organise Saudi women.

While now released, Sharif, the leader of the driving protest, has had to relocate to Dubai because Saudi authorities would not give her permission to marry a foreigner after her divorce from her Saudi husband. A rebellious woman, the authorities have clearly stated, has no place in the kingdom.

Saudi women’s selection of the right to drive a car as the crux of their struggle for empowerment is notable. The right to drive suggests the ability to leave one place and go to another as an act of free will, unimpeded by the wishes of someone else.

Driving, in the vast sandy stretches of Saudi Arabia, suggests dominion over a country. It also suggests a visible entry of women into a public sphere where their movements are currently dictated by men. The underlying logic of political empowerment is simple: if repression is equal to a public space emptied of women, then emancipation must mean one full of them.

The recipe for gender-based empowerment hence considers the right to drive as central to the agenda of empowerment. The class dimension of the issue, however, receives lesser attention.

As the case of Morin illustrates, it is often expatriate women who bear the brunt of the prohibition on driving. While wealthy Saudi women can easily flout the restrictions on their movement by the constant presence of not one but several chauffeurs to cart them around town, women from abroad — either the wives of those toiling on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields or foreign labourers themselves — cannot afford such luxuries.

Like Morin, they face a situation where they may not be able to do something as simple as obtain enough food and water for their families. There is, however, little information available on whether the demands made by Saudi women eager for the right to drive would apply to all women living in the kingdom or only to those who fit the narrowly constructed and ethnically based criterion of Saudi citizenship.

The ban on driving also creates sticky situations for foreign men working as chauffeurs. On June 16, soon after the sentence was handed down to Huwaider, a private chauffeur from Bangladesh was arrested by Saudi authorities.

The incident took place in Makkah, where members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who were on routine night patrol, found him travelling alone in the car with, it was alleged, his mistress.

The Saudi woman was freed but the 27-year-old driver remains in custody. The woman’s husband was said to be visiting London at the time of the incident.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, the issue represents the complicated dynamics of rich women with resources but without rights, using the services of those without rights or resources to achieve their objectives. The question of equality between genders, then, stands on the back of the question of equality between humans, regardless of where they were born.

In the final outcome, it is quite likely that Saudi women will obtain the right to drive — or at least some compromised version of it that allows them to commandeer a vehicle under certain set circumstances.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, surrounded as it is by the upheavals of the Arab Spring and an immigrant population that lives enslaved to the whims of its Saudi employers, will likely choose to empower Saudi women rather than face the grim prospect of providing more rights to its immigrant labour force.

In other news, an Indonesian woman was killed and several other workers injured when Saudi authorities stormed the Indonesian consulate in an attempt to apprehend migrant labourers for extradition from the country.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com