I recently returned from a 1,000-mile road trip with a local car club, and am reminded again how much I love driving; how much I enjoy road trips. To me, my car has always been one of the most important possessions I own. It’s much more than a piece of aluminum/metal transporting me from point A to point B. Ok, maybe it’s an obsession. Cars have been my hobby for most of my life. A fact that may seem strange to other women; hardly strange to most men. So I cannot imagine-although that day will come-when I won’t be able to drive a car.
As June 17 approaches I think about those women growing up and living in parts of the Middle East who are not allowed to drive (or own) a car. While driving is technically not illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the early ’90s banned the practice. A statement from the Ministry of Interior backed up the decree.
On June 17, 2011, a Saudi woman by the name of Manal al-Shariff, gained international attention after she uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving-in a country where women are banned from doing so. Today she is the face of Saudi Arabia’s Women2Drive movement, which plans to hold demonstrations on the same day this year, calling for women in the Middle East to be able to do something that’s second nature everywhere else in the world: Drive themselves around town in an automobile.
Al-Sharif’s action followed a November 6, 1990, demonstration in which women in the capital of Riyadh drove without permission. Since her protest, small groups of women periodically have staged what The New York Times referred to as “random acts of women driving,” to stand up for their rights.
Al-Sharif follows in that tradition, but she has caused much more of an uproar. For al-Sharif, it started very simply. A divorced mother of a six-year-old son, she challenges herself every year on her birthday, April 25, to do something different. One year, she went sky diving. In 2011, she wanted to drive, so in May last year, an acquaintance filmed al-Sharif while she drove through the streets of Khobar wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses but not hiding her face. In the video, al-Sharif tells her audience “We want to change the country.”A woman during an emergency, what’s she going to do? God forbid her husband’s with her and he has a heart attack. …”
When referring to the fact that many women have to pay drivers to get around in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif says, “Not all of us live luxurious lives — are spoiled like queens and have drivers.” Al-Sharif’s act of defiance of course, did not go unnoticed. She was detained by police the next day, and held for nine days without being charged. She was released after considerable international pressure, much of it coming from the Twitter hashtag #Women2Drive and corresponding pages on Facebook. The following month, dozens of women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel and drove to protest the ban.
So on June 17, 2012, the Women2Drive campaign is planning to have a second drive event. The group again is encouraging Saudi women to go out and drive, and Amnesty International has collected thousands of portraits of people who support the movement and plans to send them to the Saudi royal family, according to Cristina Finch, the U.S. chapter’s policy and advocacy director for women’s human rights. However, because al-Sharif is concerned about her family’s safety she does not plan to take part in the drive this year, but she expects that demonstrations will take place at Saudi embassies around the world.
“The campaign isn’t really about driving,” says al-Sharif. Driving, in one sense, is a stand-in for other issues, such as voting or holding public office, both of which won’t be allowed until 2015. Women cannot get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who is usually a father or husband, notes al-Sharif. Much of public life is segregated by gender.
For Al-Sharif and other Saudi women, she hopes driving will be a starting point to empower silent women. “When a woman breaks that taboo and she is not afraid to drive that car by herself — that’s it,” she said. “Now she has the guts to speak up for herself and take action.”
In essence, the Women2Drive campaign is asking women of Saudi Arabia to go through some of the same transformations al-Sharif did. And as life sometimes goes, the beginning of her empowerment came by taking a chance: She allowed herself to listen to one of her brother’s cassette tapes of music-considered another forbidden and sinful act (unless approved by a male guardian), and the message in the music moved her.
Following the Oslo Freedom Forum where she received an award for “creative dissent,” al Sharif had to look up the definition of “dissent.” After learning the word’s meaning, she said she doesn’t think of herself as a dissident. “I find myself someone who is driven by her own struggle,” she said. Then she ended her speech with a metaphor: “The rain begins with a single drop.”
We never know when we will turn that corner. But when we do, there is no going back.