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The road to freedom

Published Jun 26, 2013 07:30am


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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.


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Comments (11) Closed

Feroz Jun 26, 2013 08:18am

Islam has given women many rights and equality. Who has snatched these away, must be discussed and resolved.

mazharuddin Jun 26, 2013 02:24pm

Seem a conspiracy to defame Saudi government. Writer is biased. There is complete freedom to women in Saudi Arabia and in accordance to Islamic traditions. This is not women freedom to allow sexual freedom with having illicit relations with men without marriage as can be seen in western society. Infact the law of polygamy in Ilsma meets the requirement of society better than western laws that even allowed gay marriages.

Saudi government is doing well to protect Islamic values and culture. Islam is only to believe in God, do good, avoid evil and res men should involve personal duties honestly to meet his daily requirement. Driving by car is much dangerous on highways and roads by women even in west. This is also no freedom to allow falsehood in the name of religious freedom or any other kind freedom. Falsehood should be condemned either in the shape of religion and culture. Unfortunately Pakistani society is not taking care to this. The socalled writers and thinkers of sects even overlook the root causes which is hypocrisy. Honest people should come ahead.

Zahid Khan Jun 26, 2013 04:13pm

The radicals in Pakistan will make you believe that we all need to emulate Saudi Arabia of such above stated way of life for us to become true Muslims. And the dire need for all of us to learn Arabic as a first language in order to understand Islam better. And not to forget, the dependency on hired foreign labor and dish out slave like treatment.

G.A. Jun 26, 2013 05:12pm

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a pressure cooker waiting to burst. The royal family can ignore it at their own peril. What it would do to the Muslim world once the walls of Saudi-built dogma (a distortion of the original message of Islam) comes crumbling down is a case to ponder.

Zahid Hussain Jun 26, 2013 05:28pm

I have been reading Rafia's articles since long time and they are well written.I have been living in Saudi Arabia for over a decade and found it quite peaceful country.Permitting women driving in Saudi Arabia is desired by less than 5% of total.Should we not respect the majority and leave this issue to Saudies own will.There are much more issues in Pakistan for Rafia to address.

Naseer Jun 26, 2013 07:22pm

Does Islam allow women to drive? Does Islam allow women to have education? Does Islam allow women to make their own decisions? Does Islam allow an employer to hold his foreign employees as prisoner with full control of their movement and their bank accounts. Does Islam allow an employer not paying his employees for years with no accountability from the state. All these are important questions. Specially if a country proclaims to follow Islamic law. It is very important to know what is the Islamic law, otherwise it is the image of Islam that is tarnished the world over.

Kafir Jun 26, 2013 07:55pm

Saudi Arabia is not the "keeper" of the faith. They are just a bunch of tribal brutes who have found oil money. The royals are pretty much free to do all things forbidden by simply going overseas. They just put on a "holier than thou" show. They are cruel towards whom they consider lesser. It is time that Pakistanis stop looking for guidance from them.

Dr. D. Prithipaul Jun 26, 2013 08:56pm

Rafia Zakaria omits referring to the millions of women who do approve of official Saudi gender policy.

pakOne Jun 26, 2013 09:55pm

The saudi Women should be riding camel, that is the islamic tradition the SA cannot deny.

MuzJee Jun 26, 2013 10:26pm

@mazharuddin: Are you kidding me ???

Raziuddin Jun 26, 2013 10:24pm

@mazharuddin: Listen to yourself. I am sorry to say so but you are not making any sense by creating confusion between driving and vice. Please migrate to Saudi Arabia. The only problem is that they will not let you. Even if you somehow manage to get work over there as a drive, you might end up in the position of the poor Bengali driver. Then I would like to know your views.