Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why support Saudi women's right to drive?

Supporting Saudi women's right to drive and obtain their full rights is not only morally the right thing to do, but it is in the best interest of the international community. This is due to the vital religious and economic roles that Saudi Arabia plays in the lives, perceptions and behaviors of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Saudi Arabia is the birth place of Islam and home to its two most holy shrines, in Mecca and Medina. Because of its centrality to Islam, empowering Saudi women will resonate throughout Muslim communities and could potentially undermine religious extremism and its byproduct terrorism. Saudi women are among the most outspoken groups against religious extremism in their country. This is due to the Saudi religious establishment’s relentless political, social, educational and economic discriminatory campaigns against Saudi women.

Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are legally barred from driving. The Saudi autocratic and Wahhabi theocratic government attribute its policy against women driving to religion and tradition. Saudi women and many men reject the government's assertions and have been trying peacefully to convince their absolute monarchy and its religious establishment that neither Islam nor indigenous traditions object to women driving, working or traveling without governmental and male guardian permission. However, women's petitions and peaceful demands to obtain their basic rights have fallen on government’s deaf ears. Having exhausted all efforts to obtain their right to drive, a few Saudi women have taken behind the wheels in recent years starting in 1990 when forty seven women took their husbands’ car keys and drove them in the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Desolately, they were quickly caught, interrogated, lost their jobs and ended up confessing to having broken the Saudi unwritten laws. A recent example of the enforcement of the Saudi government’s ban on women driving is the abduction of Manal al Sharif from her home at 3 AM on May 22, 2011. The day before Ms. al Sharif, who obtained her license abroad, drove her car in Eastern Saudi Arabia to show that women are capable of driving safely and responsibly. She herself driving while explaining the need for Saudi women to drive themselves instead of hiring strangers to drive them around, She posted the video which the Saudi authorities interpreted as an incitement that was intended to mobilize other women to drive. In addition, she, along with a group of like-minded Saudi women, set up a facebook account arguing the need for women’s right to drive, not for fun, but out of necessity. After nine days of imprisonment and interrogation, she was released after agreeing, in writing, never to drive again and henceforth would put her faith in the hands of the Saudi ruling family, according to the Saudi media.

As Americans with close economic and strategic ties to the Saudi regime, it’s in our best interest to support Saudi women’s rights not only to drive, but to become full participants in the Saudi decision making processes. Societies where women are equal and empowered have proven to be more stable, prosperous and tolerant of differences.

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