Thursday, August 20, 2009

Women and driving in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Women Can Drive. Just Let Them.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider

Washington Post August 16, 2009

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia Who is that woman who returns day after day to the border crossing, seeking to pass from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, only to be turned away? She is me.
Who am I? A native of the city of Hufuf in eastern Saudi Arabia, where the world's best dates are grown, a 47-year-old divorced mother of two teenage sons, and an employee of the vast Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco.

I am not a dangerous person, so why do they turn me away? Because I refuse to present a document signed by my male "guardian," giving his permission for me to travel. And why do I do that? I possess such a document, but it is humiliating to have to produce it, and I am tired of being humiliated solely because I am a woman. So I have decided to try to leave my country without following the rules. I have urged other Saudi women to do likewise, and in recent weeks several have.

Everyone knows that women are denied rights in Saudi Arabia. And you may think that our fate is the same one that women in some other developing countries face, only a little worse. In truth, we endure a status that most Americans can scarcely imagine.

The guardianship rules are only part of a bigger system of subjugating women. Even with the permission of a guardian, a woman may not drive a car (except in some isolated rural areas and within the compounds that are home to many workers from Western countries). Obviously, there is nothing in the Koran that forbids driving. No, the reason we are not allowed to drive is that the power to transport ourselves would give men much less control over us.

So, one of my other campaigns has been for the right to drive. Last year on International Women's Day I posted a video on YouTube of myself driving a car. It was filmed by another woman sitting in the passenger's seat. I explained that many Saudi women who have lived abroad have driver's licenses from other countries and would be happy to volunteer to teach our sisters how to drive. (That way they would not have to be alone in a car with a male driving instructor, lest terrible things happen.) This video has received more than 181,000 hits.
Earlier this year, while visiting my two sons at boarding school in Virginia (I send them there because I do not want them to grow up to be typical Saudi men), I staged a demonstration in front of a car dealership in Woodbridge. I addressed a message to U.S. automakers: Saudi women want to buy your cars (and many can afford to). But first, you must support our fight for the right to drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia may not go out without an abaya, an ugly black cloak that we have to wear on top of our regular clothes. You can imagine how great that feels in 100-degree heat. Saudi men, on the other hand, always wear white. In 2006, I dressed in pink when I staged a one-person protest march. It was the anniversary of the ascent of King Abdullah to the throne. By Saudi standards, Abdullah is a liberal, but he has not done nearly enough to change our situation. So I made a simple sign: "Give women their rights."

I started in Bahrain. I had a taxi drive me to the border. After crossing to the Saudi side I pulled out my sign and marched along the causeway from the island nation to the Saudi mainland. After 20 minutes, a police car pulled up and officers arrested me. After a day of interrogation in the police station, the cops were prepared to release me. But of course they couldn't release me into my own custody. I had to phone my younger brother to come act as my guardian.

Women are not allowed to participate in sports. How could you in an abaya? When I was very young, I was a tomboy. I loved to ride a bike, which my mother allowed, although most girls are forbidden because this activity might cost them their "virginity" by rupturing the hymen. When I was 7, my teacher tied my legs and beat me with a stick when she learned that I had been playing soccer with boys. Then she made me sit at my desk all day, without going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water.

While women are forced to be entirely dependent on men, men are allowed to follow their whims. A woman can get a divorce, but only by going through a laborious legal procedure in religious court. However, a man can divorce his wife merely by saying "I divorce you" three times. Although this is an ancient practice, these days the clerical authorities are debating whether the man has to say this in person, or if a text message will suffice. Already a judge in Jiddah has approved the first case of text-message divorce. The man was in Iraq to participate in jihad.

It's also legal for men to marry girls as young as 7 and 8 years old. I have campaigned on behalf of an 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 50-year-old man. I posted a video on YouTube against child marriages, showing little girls and teenagers voicing their refusal to be child brides. The video was covered by local female writers, then picked up by CNN. This campaign terminated that marriage, and the little girl is free. Several months ago, the Saudi minister of justice announced plans to ban child marriages, but nothing has happened. A few days ago a 70-year-old man married a 9-year-old girl in Jiddah. Her father technically sold his daughter for $4,000. The day after the wedding night, the little girl was missing. She was found by her brother in a candy shop where she used to go to buy sweets.

Then there's polygamy. Saudi men are allowed to marry as many as four wives. Polygamy has destroyed many families. In my campaigns, I often feel that I am fighting for my mom.
After she married my father, she was informed by his mother that he already had another wife. When my mother confronted him, he assured her that she was his favorite and promised to divorce the first woman. For a time my mom was happy. But after a few years, she learned that my father had taken another wife. Now, my mom was no longer the favorite.

I was luckier than many. I married for love, and my former husband still holds a place in my heart, but we are no longer together. After the attacks on America in 2001, the Saudi government was embarrassed by the role of its citizens in this violence. To try to improve our country's image, the government liberalized slightly. I had been posting comments about women's rights on various Web sites, and I was invited to write a weekly column in al Watan, the nation's largest newspaper. Then, the English-language Arab News also wanted my work.
My husband chafed at my high profile, and he complained about the demands on my time. One day he announced that he was marrying a second wife. Although he swore that I was the most important one, I had watched my mother waste her life. I demanded a divorce.

My time in the limelight lasted only a year before the Saudi censors banned me. The authorities never communicated this to me directly, but one by one the editors of each publication rejected my pieces.

There are many Saudi women whose lives are marred far more than mine. Fatima Al-Azaz, for example, was lucky enough to marry for love, but her half-brothers decided that her husband's social standing was too low, so they persuaded a religious court to divorce them. The couple cannot ignore the divorce order because here people can be whipped, imprisoned and even executed for contact with someone of the opposite sex who is not their spouse or a relative. Still, Al-Azaz tried to return to her husband. To prevent that, she was first imprisoned for nine months together with her infant, then released to a women's shelter where her movements are restricted.
Or consider the story of Jamila, a wife of a relative. The eldest of 18 children by four wives of a poor date-farmer, Jamila completed high school with outstanding grades. Soon after graduation, her father agreed to marry her to a man from the city. Jamila traveled with her mother to the city, where she met her husband for the first time on their wedding night. He turned out to be mentally disturbed. She pleaded with her mother to take her back home. Then Jamila was pushed into a room with her new "guardian," who consummated their union forcefully, while she screamed and pled for mercy.

One of my protest-video campaigns that did not succeed was a plan to post filmed testimony by women like Jamila. We were able to make one or two videos, but I found that even with their faces hidden, most Saudi women who have suffered are afraid to speak about it publicly.

There are women who don't support our cause -- rich ones whose husbands benefit from the system, and religious ones who just don't believe in change.

Why am I different? I am not sure. Perhaps because as a Shiite (who make up 10 percent of the Saudi population) I have always been somewhat marginalized. Perhaps because my mother, unlike most others, allowed me to play soccer with the boys, and I've always felt equal to them. Perhaps because I have the security of working for Aramco, the giant government oil company which depends on its largely Western workforce and therefore functions as an enclave of relative liberalism. Perhaps because I went to college in America and got to experience a life in which women are treated as people, not property.

wajeha4@gmail.com
Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a writer and an activist, is a co-founder of the Society for Defending Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider driving last year in Saudi Arabia:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8GiTnb33wE&feature=related
Blog about feminist issues in Saudi Arabia:
http://sandgetsinmyeyes.blogspot.com/

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