Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How The Occupy Wall Street Protesters Can Learn From Saudi Women

Interesting column in Forbes by Moira Forbes - advising those involved in the "Occupy Wall Street" movement to take a few pointers from Saudi women and their quest to gain the right to drive.  A link to the story is here,  and the text is pasted in below.

Wall Street Protesters Can Learn From Saudi Women - Moira Forbes

Social media has revolutionized political discourse in countries around the globe, not to mention a few blocks from my apartment in New York City. “Occupy Wall Street,” the grassroots movement decrying the lack of economic parity in the U.S., began three weeks ago with a small group of unorganized protesters. But thanks to multi-media efforts on Facebook and up-to-the-minute tweets from protesters and sympathizers alike, “Occupy Wall Street” has morphed into a multi-city campaign that has captivated the nation’s attention. Protests spanned over 70 cities this past weekend alone.

Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, occupy Wall Street has evolved into a catch-all movement of frustration. It still remains unclear as to what activists are actually fighting for or what they intend to accomplish. From the very beginning, the movement has lacked a clear, unifying statement or a focused action plan that would result in something more than hundreds of arrests and depleting the city of New York, and others around the nation, millions of dollars for security.

In other parts of the world where the political climate is far less open than in the U.S., social media has been the critical catalyst in effecting actual change.  Yet in a country where we have the precious freedom to protest, Occupy Wall Street should look to the Middle East not just for inspiration, but also for guidance if driving change versus making noise is their ultimate goal.
Occupy can start by the following the example set by Saudi women this summer as they made extraordinary strides in galvanizing global support around breaking the country’s archaic ban on women driving.

What are the lessons to be learned?

In a region where women lack the power‑-and the protection–to take to the streets, Saudi women leveraged social media in clever and strategic ways unique to other activists in the region.  In June, a small group of women launched “Women2Drive,” a grassroots campaign rooted by just a Facebook page and twitter updates aimed at protesting the kingdom’s driving ban. Women were urged to take to the streets on June 17th, not in massive gatherings, but rather by getting behind the wheel of a car– and filming it.

Dozens of Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving online, rarely even speaking and never seeking public attention. And the Twitterverse responded in support. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “Beep beep and solidarity to the Saudi women & supporters challenging the driving ban!” Rep. Donna Christensen, the first female physician in the U.S. Congress tweeted, “In my doc practice some US did everything to prevent wives driving. They couldn’t! Drive SA women Drive!) And Rep. Karen Bass, who retweeted Pelosi’s message, added one of her own, “I stand in solidarity with Saudi Arabian women participating in the #Women2Drive Campaign today.”

The campaign was hugely successful except for some notable exceptions including one Saudi woman who was sentenced to 10 lashings for defying the ban. And social media once again served as the clarion call to action perhaps motivating Saudi King Abdullah to revoke the ruling last month.

The second lesson to be learned from the women’s driving campaign is to stay extremely focused. The women chose one specific injustice—the ban on driving—and used it to illuminate the other social and political injustices inextricably linked to this ban. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving or even riding a bicycle, a stunning reality that compelled tens of thousands around the world to sign online petitions through groups such as Saudi Women for Driving. Selecting a less politically charged issue such as the right to vote also enabled key political leaders like Hillary Clinton to publicly support this campaign despite the US’ diplomatic balancing act with Saudi Arabia.

In a shocking and historical move, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote, and as the women’s driving campaign so brilliantly illustrates, protesters may need a Trojan horse to drive reform around some of the most sensitive issues facing a country and a culture.

Finally, the Occupy Wall Street protesters need to learn to be patient. Now, more than ever, we expect change overnight, and while it appeared to change that quickly in the Middle East this spring, deep, meaningful and sustained change takes a long time.  Even if you can usher in new legislation, it doesn’t mean that Americans’ daily lives of will change overnight. What’s more, embracing diverse perspectives remain core to our democratic process and with that comes compromise and a balancing act for leaders today.

When the Saudi King granted women the right to vote, he faced intense unrest among the top Muslim clerics, one of the King’s key power bases. Granting women driving rights may be too politically explosive at this particular moment given the country’s instability.  He knows, as do some other leaders, the value in measured action. Occupy Wall Street protesters would do well to follow his lead as well as that of Saudi women.


  1. Absolutely fabulous. Articulate,intelligent and amusing.I go to this site every day and love the articles by the brave women of Saudi Arabia. You are an inspiration to all women . Keep up the GREAT work ladies.

  2. Thank you for your support, Anonymous, and for your kind words.

  3. This is an interesting website - I didn't even realise that there would be any country in the world that would forbid women to drive.