Friday, May 27, 2011

Sabria Jawhar on Saudi Women's Driving Ban

The following is a reprint of a post written by Sabria Jawhar, a leading Saudi journalist and contributor to The Huffington Post, Saudi Gazette, and other publications. She is a doctoral candidate at Newcastle Upon Tyne University in the UK. Sabria was honored in 2010 by Arabian Business magazine when she was named to its "Power 100 List" as one of the world's most influential Arabs. She also writes a blog called "Sabria's Out of the Box," where this opinion piece was originally published and which then appeared in The Huffington Post...

There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system.

The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that. The driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women’s quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.

My change of heart comes from the fact that it’s obvious that well into the 21st century, Saudis are unable and apparently unwilling to solve minor issues like a woman’s right to drive an automobile. So what makes me think that we can solve the weightier problems of guardianship and justice in the courts?

Well, we can’t. The path Saudi Arabia is taking towards judicial reform and granting women better employment opportunities is questionable. It’s a questionable because Manal broke no laws, yet she was arrested in the dead of night on a vague allegation of “violating the public order.” She is accused of “violating the rules and the system by driving her car, roaming the streets of the province" and "inciting public opinion" by posting a video of her driving on YouTube.

Clearly it’s the Khobar municipal police and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue that have violated the public order. Manal was performing basic tasks as a woman in charge of her household. If that means driving a car to perform those tasks, so be it. By arresting Manal for exercising her rights to perform these chores, the police and commission violated the public order. The public order was further violated because the arrest caused anger among Saudi women who empathize with Manal’s attempts shed light on her plight to get around town to take care of her family.

The facts as we know them are that Manal, who possesses an international driver’s license as required by Saudi authorities, drove her car. She was wearing a seatbelt, obeyed all traffic laws, wore the hijab and had her brother in the car with her. There is nothing in the Saudi traffic codes about women not permitted to drive. There is nothing un-Islamic about her behavior. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, and long before him, Sheikh Al Al-Bani, said there is no Islamic reason to deny women the right to drive.

By arresting Manal Al-Sherif, Saudi authorities elevated the once trivial debate on women driving to a major issue. King Abdullah in an interview with Barbara Walters, and virtually every Saudi minister from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unequivocally said that women driving is a societal issue. King Abdullah said that only Saudi society could determine the appropriate time when women can drive cars. He said he believed that time was soon.

I gather in this case Saudi society comprises of the religious conservatives who continue to object to this simple right, although there is no religious foundation to prevent women from driving. Manal’s brother, the woman who sat in the passenger seat of Manal’s car and Manal’s family apparently do not qualify as members of Saudi society. Nor does the woman arrested with her two female relatives the other day for driving in the rural province of Al-Ras. And perhaps the Al-Ras arrests are even more troubling than Manal’s detention.

For decades, Saudi women living in rural areas have driven cars and trucks to keep food on the table, take children to school and to make sure the family business runs smoothly. It strikes me as odd that the Saudi government gives rural women a free pass, but denies Manal a trip to a Khobar supermarket to put food on her table.

Saudis, however, have no one to blame but themselves. And I wonder whether they even understand the significance of Manal’s case. A Saudi male colleague wrote to me the other day that his father’s “neighbor refuses every single young man who comes asking for the hand of one of his three daughters in marriage … They should go to court and complain against him but they did not. Isn't (marriage) a more important issue than driving? Why do you, women, insist on driving and forget your other more basic rights?”

Clearly, the right to marry whom one pleases is more important than driving. Yet we have no hope of solving this more significant problem if we can’t even agree on the less important ones.

Frankly, I’m ashamed of what happened to Manal. Saudis hold themselves up to ridicule from the global community. Saudi Arabia singed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations’ new women’s rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community’s embrace of universal women’s rights.

It appears we are not even close to that goal.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting that Sabria Jawhar has changed her mind. She so often supports the conservative views, despite claiming to work for women’s rights. Sabria is all too often still in the box.

    Jawhar states: ”...Saudi Arabia singed [sic] the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations’ new women’s rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community’s embrace of universal women’s rights.”

    The fact is that sharia is inherently discriminatory especially against women. Therefore, Saudi and other Muslim women will probably never get their universal human rights of equality with men. The very idea that Saudi, one of the most repressive places on earth for women, should have been given (not earned) a seat on UN Women, is a joke! It is in fact scandalous!

    Many nonMuslim men and women have stopped feeling sorry for Muslim women. If they want their God-given rights they must simply take them. The men will not give rights to the women and no one else will come to rescue these women.

    Jawhar states that she is ashamed of what happened to Manal. Unfortunately, not enough Saudis are ashamed that they have made themselves the laughing stock of the world with their backwardness, while claiming the high road.

    I do wish that Saudis would stop complaining and start doing!

    Marianne

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Marianne - I too was surprised that Sabria had changed her tune about this issue. What is needed for change at this point is bravery and gumption. I'm very tired of excuses and promises. Thanks for your comment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Susie,

    I agree with what annonymous wrote...

    "Jawhar states that she is ashamed of what happened to Manal. Unfortunately, not enough Saudis are ashamed that they have made themselves the laughing stock of the world with their backwardness, while claiming the high road."

    And it is truly a joke that SA should have a place in the UN Women (women's rights agency) when Saudi women have no rights.

    What would happen if all the women demanded rights? Would they all be put in jail? Why does this continue to happen with the whole world watching? Do we put up with it for oil? I realize we cannot control what happens in that country...but with the ability to see and read about what is happening in the rest of the world, I find it very hard to believe that the female population does not long for freedom from a threatening, intimidating, unfair society where men (I hope not all) keep them from having a reasonable quality of life.

    One more reason not to live there.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Susie,

    Thanks so much for reposting my column. I'm a big fan of yours. I'd like to clarify some points your reader raised. First, I've always supported a Saudi woman's right to drive. Whether Saudi women actually drive is unimportant. It's the freedom of choice that's important. I just believed it was a superficial issue compared to more pressing rights denied women. The recent behavior of the Saudi government has forced the driving ban debate to a much higher level, and now I think it has moved to the forefront of some of the most important women's rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

    There are a great many Saudi women who want universal rights that women enjoy in the West. There are more Saudi women, in my humble opinion, that want the rights accorded them within the context of Islam/Sharia. I fall into this latter category. It doesn't make me liberal or conservative. It just makes me a Muslim. At the end of the day, people either perceive Sharia as discriminatory against women or they don't. If Sharia is honestly applied -- and I doubt that will ever happen anywhere -- then it gives women their universal rights as Saudi women define the word "universal."

    Best Regards,
    Sabria

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Lori - I can assure you that many Saudi men provide very comfortable lives for their wives, are supportive of them, and allow them freedom, even though legally men maintain control over them. I don't know what it will take, however, for Saudi women to stand united for change. Certainly there are many Saudi women who are just fine with the way things are.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Sabria - It was my pleasure to repost your article, and thank you so much for clarifying your position. I actually was excited when I saw your comment! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think a lot of people in the West just don't get the "women's rights in the context of Islam" thing at all, seeing it as an oxymoron: It isn't.

    Women in Saudi Arabia are not (at least not generally) complaining about Sharia. They are complaining about a certain, limited view that belongs to the small group of self-proclaimed scholars who dominate the country.

    Saying "I want to drive" is not saying "I don't want Sharia". As Ms Sabria said herself, it's exactly because this ban has no basis in Islamic law that it's so unacceptable to her and many like her. Some western commentators, although well-motivated I'm sure, just don't understand: when a woman says "I want my rights" she is not saying "I want to be American"....only in American eyes can the two ever be synonymous!

    Nice blog by the way. I'm going to check out Sabria's too...and I think maybe some others need to get out of their secular good/Islam bad box too: it's just not true.

    ReplyDelete

I had to enable Word Verification due to spam comments - Sorry!
This is my personal blog and therefore it reflects MY personal opinions. If you don't agree with me, that's fine. But if you feel the need to let me know that you don't agree with me, you must do so in a civilized, kind and constructive manner, without namecalling or filthy language, or being rude or offensive. In other words: BE NICE, OR I WILL NOT PUBLISH YOUR COMMENT!