Friday, 15 January 2010

Driving Towards Equality

Author : S.B.Z., Saudi Arabia, Age 19

Unlike most young girls who grow up playing with Fulla or Sara dolls – Barbie-style dolls marketed to children in the Middle East – Fatima Al-Abdulaziz, 19, used to zoom Ferrari and Lamborghini models across the carpeted floor of her Riyadh villa when she was young. As Al‑Abdulaziz grew older, she stopped racing the cars in her living room. Yet, the model cars continued to hold a special place in her heart and the ruby red and canary yellow model cars were lovingly displayed on a stand beside her bed.

When once asked why, Al-Abdualaziz responded: “I know I will never be permitted to drive a car in actuality. I live out my fantasy of driving through these toys. Every night before going to bed, I look at these cars and dream of a day when I, too, will be able to drive.”

Today, however, Al-Abdualaziz beams as she opens the door to her family’s four-door sedan, and sits – not shotgun or in the backseat as usual – but in the driver’s seat. Her dream has become reality.

Yesterday, in the culmination of a suffragette-style movement, the women of Saudi Arabia attained the right to drive a car. Spearheaded by Hala Al-Amer, the movement began in early 2009 when Al-Amer, then 24, picked up an Arabic translation of To Kill a Mockingbird from a local bookstore. The famed Harper Lee novel opened her eyes to the world of the American Civil Rights Movement and triggered Al-Amer to research it further. This in turn introduced her to personalities like Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois.

But it was when Al-Amer read about Rosa Parks and how her actions symbolized the beginning of the end of racial segregation in the United States that Al-Amer realized that anyone, even women, can make a difference in society. The restriction of African-Americans to the back of buses reminded Al-Amer all too well of the restriction of women in Saudi Arabia to the backseat of cars.

Al-Amer was fed up with hearing tales of women who had died in their homes because there was no male at home at the time to transport them to a hospital emergency room. She had also seen far too often boys as young as nine or ten driving large SUVs because there was no other male in the household who could take the female members out. Even in regards to her own family, Al-Amer was tired of waiting for her younger brother to come home from college, or her father to come home from work, so that she could go to her friend’s house, or so her mother could merely buy some bread and eggs.

Al-Amer felt it was high time for change in her homeland. She realized that if women in the Kingdom were to ever attain equality with men, they would have to commit the same acts of defiance as Rosa Parks.

At first, Al-Amer was not sure how to best approach her idea of civil disobedience. She recalled how in November of 1990 forty-seven Saudi women drove through the streets of Riyadh in efforts to protest laws prohibiting them from driving. The women were imprisoned and their extended families were publicly chastised. As a result, a similar protest appeared to be a futile step towards female emancipation in Al-Amer’s eyes – at least at first.

After one particular evening of intense Facebooking and web surfing, Al-Amer realized that there was a particular tool that the women of 1990 did not have. What was this secret weapon? The Internet.

With this resource, Al-Amer decided to form a network of like-minded individuals. She created a blog urging women’s equality and discovered that many people held similar views as hers. Within a week, her blog had more than five thousand hits.

“I expected to face a lot of opposition,” Al-Amer recalls. “However, almost everyone I communicated with agreed with me when I said that restrictions on women driving have no basis in religion. It’s all cultural.”

Al-Amer began to blog more and more passionately, and soon enough, she formed a virtual clandestine group with twenty other Saudi women known as “Dames Requiring Implementation of Vehicular Equality,” or D.R.I.V.E. These women individually networked out to other women in their respective communities against driving restrictions in Saudi Arabia, and the group grew exponentially.

By mid-2010, D.R.I.V.E. had more than one thousand members. On the eve of 2011, D.R.I.V.E. had more than five thousand members. It was rumored that nearly every household had at least one woman in the group. However, the association worked under such hushed pretenses, that the association acquired characteristics of a secret society.

Throughout 2011, the association worked undercover throughout the Kingdom to legalize women’s driving. Flyers and posters demanding women’s right to drive began to pop up in the malls of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. Shortly after that, they appeared in mosques and invoked religious traditions, demonstrating that women during the Prophet’s time, including his wives, rode camels. “Had they been alive now, they would have driven cars!” exclaimed one flyer. They were all signed solely as “D.R.I.V.E.”

A national witch-hunt was instigated to combat the root of these civil disobediences, but there was no way of uncovering the leadership. D.R.I.V.E. included some women specializing in Information Technology, meaning no digital paper trail was left. The Saudi populace began rumbling about this highly contentious issue in a way never seen before. Change appeared to be close.

The piece de resistance, however, occurred on November 6, 2011, 21 years to the day after the failed 1990 protest. More than 3,500 cars appeared in the streets of Riyadh blocking the road towards the airport. Similar protests took place in the other major cities of the country. All cars were driven by members of D.R.I.V.E. In other words, all cars were driven by women.

A protest on such a mass scale was never seen before in Saudi Arabia. While some protesters, including Al-Amer, were arrested, it was impossible for police to arrest all of the dissenters. As a result, for the first time in Saudi history, women led a largely successful demonstration.

To protest the imprisonment of the D.R.I.V.E. members, citizens from the entire spectrum of society—male and female, famous celebrities and average people, young and old—began to lead protests on the streets. Riots erupted in the capital and other important cities.

When interviewed why she was protesting the streets despite putting her entire family at risk, Reema Al-Omar, 43, replied: “We have been hearing that the new King [Abdullah] will allow women to drive. But it’s been nearly seven years now, but nothing has been done.”

Mona Al-Hussein, 29, another protester, said, “Women are fifty percent of the population, and one half of the population cannot suppress the other. It’s time we take our own matters into our own hands.”

After a month of marches all across the country and a Gandhian-style hunger strike by the imprisoned D.R.I.V.E. members, even the international community began to take note. As international pressure forcing Saudi Arabia to legalize women’s right to drive increasingly mounted, the government finally penned a new law enabling women to drive. The decree passed on January 2, 2012 and Hala Al-Amer and the other protesters were released.

And so, yesterday marked the first day when the famed, palm tree-lined Tahlia Street of Riyadh had not only young men speeding their coupes, but where women driving through the streets, with black headscarves fluttering in the desert wind, could also be seen.


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