Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saudi Women Driving: A Counter View

Interesting and thoughtful blog post by Abu Muhammad, a self-described American Muslim in exile. A link to the post is here  and the text is pasted in below. In essence he says the situation in Saudi Arabia regarding women driving requires some kind of a tipping point. And he suggests a few.

By Abu Muhammad
In the wake of the un-ending debate about women driving, as a college professor in Saudi Arabia, I have a bird’s eye view of what many Saudi men are saying over the issue.

Many people on both sides of this emotional argument only see what they perceive to be important to their side of the problem—and that ‘right’ is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is ‘wrong’. It reminds me of the perennial slap-stick movie gag about a guy who demands to have a closet door opened after ignoring the attempts of his companion to warn him of the impending avalanche of content waiting to bury him.

Most Saudi male students I’ve talked to about it for the last several terms do not have any trouble with women driving. The real issue is the lack of serious enforcement of traffic laws – something most westerners seldom factor into the problem. It is perhaps the true reason why females in the Kingdom do not have driving privileges.

The reality of most impeccably covered Saudi woman walking the streets; or even being driven around by the family driver, is that most excursions are usually a perilous undertaking. This is the reason Riyadh and cities like it have ‘ladies’ or ‘family only’ malls with rent-a-cops to keep the free grazing ‘shebob’ (male youth) from harassing women shoppers.

The majority of the Saudi population (percentage wise) are hormonal teenage boys driven crazy by the notion that they need to wait until some time in their 30’s to get hitched and then come up with an obscenely high bride price to get to the alter after that. Outside their tribe, women (young or old) are fair game for being proposition by unmarried Saudi boys as can be seen in this video.

As you might notice in the 26 second video, a young woman is strolling through traffic down a busy street in the city (cities in Saudi typically have no sidewalks; thereby making any lengthy walk a street maneuver through traffic). Despite being accompanied by a small boy (usually an indication she is spoken for), you would think she was wearing a bikini by the racket they are making. Saudi and expat women take a surprising amount of heat in a country where religious police roam the streets looking for violators of the public moral scruples.

While discussing the issue with one of my students, he related the following story:

“I put on an Abaya and had a non-Saudi friend drive me through the streets of downtown Jeddah one night. I sat in the back and rolled down the window half way so they could see that (besides the driver) I was alone. As we drove, boys jeered and whistled at me from cars and on the street. Boys in cars tried to force us to pull over. They pleaded to talk; begged to get in and screamed obscene comments. Six cars chased us to the beach front in Abhor where we finally pulled over. I jumped out and took off my Abaya. They scattered like bugs when you turn on the light. It was really funny.”

Many students also admit that if the women in their family were involved in an accident, they would be compelled by an honor to exact revenge—a custom that is practiced within tribal circles; back streets and beyond serious concern or attention of the local police and the jurisdiction of Saudi courts. Knowing how Saudi boys love their moms, such a situation could give Saudi its first murder rate statistic, letting women drive now could be the beginning of the end to the relative security residence experience on Saudi streets.

Contrary to popular belief, women driving in Saudi Arabia is not a human rights cause—but largely a social one.

If this is  indeed the case, the solution should be addressed not as a human rights violation where big; bad men are oppressing weak; defenseless women —but as problem that can be easily solved through modifying certain environmental factors.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he explains how changes in an environment can make significant differences in the way people act or how they see things.

In an interview with NPR Radio in America, Gladwell attributes the dramatic decrease in crime in New York in recent years to certain environmental changes. He believes that cleaning up the New York Subway and posting police to keep people from jumping the turnstiles created a ‘tipping point’ that caused the crime rate to drop. He said by using the “Power of Context” small changes can generate big ones. In brief, Gladwell says if you show people that someone cares about what is going on and maintain the surroundings accordingly, people will change their behavior. To paraphrase Muhammad Qutb, people want to do right, but they need imposed restrictions (laws and rules) to help them to do it.

With Gladwell’s theory in mind, I believe the following measures would create the conditions for a ‘tipping point’—that is, a context where women could drive in Saudi Arabia:

• Police need to enforce all traffic laws. If you are increasing the number of inexperienced drivers on the roads, the police need to make sure everyone obeys the rules so that everyone can obey the rules. As a licensed driver in Saudi, I find myself many times disobeying the law to keep from having an accident on a road where anything goes.

• The tribalism that conditions people to be merely concerned with their own and that of their relatives rather than the general public good is a socio-psychological pillar of the Bedouin mindset. Community leaders and schools should try to change this way of thinking by supporting a more civic prospective to public well being in all school through the college level. Besides giving lip service to the idea, this change to a more community-centered approach to life in Saudi could be initiated by the current anti-littering campaign if it is vigorously supported and modeled by police, community leaders and even the crown.

• Police need to be in the community (walking or bike patrols) as a deterrent to the street justice everyone in the Saudi ‘hood’ practices because police aren’t around. In a society where family honor is a big deal, having someone around that could catch you in the act usually is enough to keep undesirable behavior in check.

Since Saudi religious conservatives aren’t budging on the matter of women driving (perhaps rightfully so, but that’s not the subject of this article), maybe a more practical; tactful and more patient approach should be considered.

Opening the door to a situation without fully considering the consequences could cause an avalanche of problems and ills that may cause more harm

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Princess Ameera al-Taweel on driving with Charlie Rose

On 2/7/2012, Princess Ameera al-Taweel, along with her husband, were interviewed by Charlie Rose on his show. The video link is below. She addresses the driving issue at around 4:00 into the interview. The link is here

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Saudi set to reject woman’s plea to drive car

According to Emirates 24/7, Sheikh Mutraf Al Bashar will be hearing the complaint filed by Manal al-Sharif and Samar Badawi about women driving in Saudi Arabia. A link to the story is here, and it's also pasted in below. Interestingly, the headline is a bit misleading because the judge says that there are no administrative reasons for denying women the right to drive. Stay tuned!

Judge says accepting case does not mean agreeing to woman’s plea

A Saudi judge indicated on Thursday he would reject a plea by a local female activist demanding that women in the conservative Muslim Gulf kingdom are allowed to drive a car despite a long-standing social ban.

Sheikh Mutraf Al Bashar, who heads an administrative court, better known as grievances court, said the case filed by Manal Al Sharif is against a government department since women are denied driving licences by the traffic police.

“Agreeing to hear the case does not mean that I accept her demand to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive cars,” he told Saqb newspaper.

“Such cases are not accepted by normal courts but grievances courts since it is against a government department.…these women base their case on the fact that the traffic police law does not discriminate between men and women…but we should also take into account the general trend in the society…this fact will determine whether women have the right to drive or not.”

He said his court remains “controlled” by certain social norms, adding that the Saudi society could still be not prepared to accept such things.“In such a case, we need to work to prepare the society to accept these things and should also devise a new legal system that will define punishment of those who will harass or abuse women who drive cars.”

Bahar said he saw no difference between males and females in the traffic law “from the administrative point of view” but added that a final approval is needed from the Monarch even if the society accepts that women drive cars.

Al Sharif, who hit headlines last year for spearheading a female campaign to allow women to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, filed the case at the administrative court in the eastern region, demanding a decision to force the country’s traffic police to allow women to have driving licence.It was the first case of its kind in the largest Arab economy and follows intensifying calls by women on Saudi authorities to end the ban.“The court has accepted the case filed by Manal al Sharif on the grounds there is no law in Saudi Arabia stipulating a ban on driving licences for women by the traffic police,” her lawyer Abdul Rahman Al Lahim said last week.
“It is the first case in Saudi Arabia..…we have based our argument in this case on the fact that the kingdom’s constitution calls for equal treatment between men and women and an international agreement signed by Saudi Arabia ending any discrimination against women.”

Lahim said he hoped the court would issue a positive sentence, adding that this would support women’s rights.He said the court had not yet fixed a date for hearings and expected it to issue a sentence that would end the ban on giving driving licences to women.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wall Street Journal - Saudi Women Sue for Right to Drive

This report from the Wall Street Journal (via Fox News) states that a court has agreed to hear the arguments in the law suit about Saudi women driving, and that a new government commission has been established to consider issues like this. Link to the story is here and the text is pasted below.
Published February 07, 2012 | The Wall Street JournalShare
    RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A court in Saudi Arabia agreed to hear the first lawsuits by Saudi women challenging the kingdom's de facto ban on women driving, a lawyer for one of the women said.
    The legal push is a shift by activists after years of simply appealing to Saudi leaders for permission to drive and, more rarely, taking to the roads in small numbers to test enforcement.

    Since mid-2011, the limited push to win women the right to drive has been one of the few fronts in a country largely bypassed by the Arab Spring activist movements of the past year.

    The lawsuits, one of them by Manal al Sharif, who founded a small movement last year called Women2Drive, risk a backlash from the public and officials in the conservative kingdom.

    But with no breakthroughs in a campaign for the right to drive begun by Saudi women during the first Gulf war in the early 1990s, it was time to change tactics, said Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi computer consultant. "It's 22 years now," she said. "We have to just finish it."

    Government officials contacted about the case did not respond to requests for comment.
    No written law bans women from driving in Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah has said he sees nothing wrong with women driving. But in a country founded by followers of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, women are uniformly denied driver's licenses and risk sentences of fines, jail or floggings for driving.

    Advocates of a ban say it is in line with stringent interpretations of the Koran that discourage the mixing of unrelated women and men. A report prepared by a Saudi academic in December for an advisory body to the king said allowing women the freedom to drive would lead to widespread loss of virginity among unmarried Saudi women.

    Advocates of the right to drive call the de facto ban a crippling and costly restriction on millions of Saudi women, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars a year for a driver, depend on male relatives for rides, or simply stay at home.

    Sharif started her campaign last year, the same day a Saudi court jailed her for more than a week for driving and having herself videotaped driving.

    Sharif's lawyer, AbdulRahman Allahim, said Monday that a court that hears citizen complaints against the government, the Board of Grievances, had agreed to hear the case. Prosecution of women drivers is typically handled elsewhere, in religious courts.

    In a possible shift that could improve the chances of women seeking the right to drive, among other issues, a local newspaper reported on Saturday that Saudi authorities would create a new commission to handle social issues such as women driving.

    While the government has not confirmed the report, the suggestion that cases of women driving might be moved out of religious courts electrified both sides of the debate.

    Read more:

    Monday, February 6, 2012

    MIA Video - Bad Girls driving in the desert

    MIA's video clip of "Bad Girls" is said to be a poke at the women's driving ban. I like it, but it seems more about being a 'bad girl' in the desert with a bunch of guys. It is pretty powerful in any case.

    Also, the outfit she wore with Madonna in the Super Bowl 2012 half-time show seems to be a cross between Bedouin and Drum Majorette. Headdress - awesome. Skirt? Not so much. And the obscene gesture? What do you expect? She's a 'bad girl' after all.

    So if you haven't seen the video, here it is. What do you think? I'm including this video because it deals with the idea of women out driving in the desert. Has a sort of James Dean rebellious feel about it. And, it's kind of fun. Love the guys folk dancing and having a good time.

    Saturday, February 4, 2012

    Saudi activists sue government over driving ban

    This from Agence France Press today: Text below, and link is here

    RIYADH — (February 4, 2012) Two Saudi female activists have filed law suits against the government for refusing to issue them driver's licences and banning them from driving a car, they told AFP on Saturday.

    Manal al-Sherif, the icon of an Internet campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a ban on driving, and human rights activist Samar Badawi filed their suits against the interior ministry.

    Sherif, who was arrested in May 2011 and detained for 10 days after posting on YouTube a video of herself driving, said she decided to file the lawsuit after having been denied a driver's licence.

    "There is no actual law that states woman can't drive" in Saudi Arabia and therefore "no justification for preventing them from issuing a licence," said Sherif, one of the activists behind a "My Right, My Dignity" campaign aimed at ending discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia.

    Badawi said the grievance board at the interior ministry had informed her to "follow-up in a week" to confirm a court appointment for her lawsuit.

    Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive. However, they sit behind the wheel in desert regions away from the capital.

    Women in the kingdom who have the financial means hire drivers while others must depend on the goodwill of male relatives.

    They also have to be veiled in public and cannot travel unless accompanied by their husbands or a close male relative.

    Women and the Arab uprisings: 8 'agents of change' to follow

    Saudi women driving activist Manal al-Sharif is featured in this major CNN story. The text is below and a link to the story is here.

    - Story by Lauren Bohn
    (CNN) -- Women have been at the forefront of the uprisings that started in Tunisia and soon cascaded west to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and across the Gulf. Over the past year, Arab women have relished the promise of a change -- and found a new sense of equality long suppressed under sclerotic patriarchal regimes.

    But many women activists fear that promise is now receding; and that women's rights are being left on the political back-burner. In Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections -- largely seen as the nation's first free and fair vote -- only nine of the newly elected 498 parliamentarians are women.

    Popular Egyptian activist blogger Dalia Zaida says shortly before the elections, she conducted an informal poll of 1,400 voters across Cairo and found not a single person, male or female, who said he or she would vote for a female presidential candidate. Women across the region worry about this growing chasm between the reality of women's unyielding participation on the streets and their stark absence from the formal political process.

    Some secular female activists also fear that the rise of Islamist parties, whatever their professed moderation, will curtail their political space.

    In Egypt, women have faced brutal treatment at the hands of the caretakers of the revolution -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Activists describe its handling of protests as incompetent at best, and malevolent at its worst. Back in March, when the military forcibly expelled protestors from Tahrir Square -- the epicenter of pro-democracy protests -- 18 female activists were arrested, 17 of whom say they were forced to undergo "virginity tests," (the military has claimed the tests were done to protect the army from possible allegations of rape).

    Recently, hundreds of women from across the Middle East attended a conference in Egypt to discuss how technology and the Internet, namely social media, can be used to protect and advance women's goals in the region. The Egyptian-American pundit Mona Eltahaway moderated the conference, taking the stage with both arms in casts. In November, she was sexually assaulted and beaten by soldiers near Tahrir Square. The plaster didn't preclude her from articulating her message: "The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is share her experience as if it matters."

    As countries across the region struggle to dismantle inequitable systems and build civil society anew, these are just a few of the female "agents of change" who are sharing their experiences and have no intention of backing down.

    Manal al Sharif
    (Saudi Arabia)
    Follow on Twitter: @manal_alsharif

    Last May, 32-year-old information security consultant Manal al Sharif got into her car in Saudi Arabia for a joyride -- of sorts. And because, simply by driving, she was breaking the law. As her friend recorded her behind the wheel, al Sharif harangues Saudi Arabia's notoriously strict gender laws. She posted the video online the next day, helping to catalyze the "#Women2Drive" movement of Saudi women who openly defied the ban on driving. She was promptly detained in jail for nine days. Al Sharif has since expanded her campaign to "My rights, my dignity," which fights for women's right to drive and the annulment of male guardianship (under this tradition, Saudi women must obtain permission from their guardian -- usually a father or husband -- to work, travel, study, or marry) among other things. "We're half the society, but we give birth to and raise the other half," al Sharif says. "So we are actually all of society."

    Her fight has just begun. Next month, she and fellow Saudi women will apply for drivers' licenses to push the claim that the kingdom's ban on female drivers is not explicitly laid down in law, but merely a retrograde custom propped up by religious rulings, or fatwas, from the kingdom's conservative clerics. And if they are denied? "We will appeal," she says defiantly.

    Dalia Ziada
    Follow on Twitter: @daliaziada

    Dalia Ziada, 30, ran, but lost, in Egypt's parliamentary elections as a candidate for the El Adl ("Justice") party, a new party founded by young revolutionaries that espouses a moderate religious and political ideology. Through the party, she founded the first partisan women's organization in Egypt to promote political literacy and help empower qualified women to run.
    Ziada is an award-winning blogger -- whose website was censored twice under ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak -- and a staunch advocate for women's rights. As a child, she was subjected to female genital mutilation. The practice was made illegal in Egypt in 2007, with the country's top Christian and Muslim religious authorities also expressing unequivocal support for the ban. In 2005, research by UNICEF found that 96 percent of Egyptian women ages 15 to 49 who had ever been married reported they had been circumcised. Ziada, the Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress, was recently named by Newsweek as one of 150 most influential women in the world and honored by The Daily Beast as one of world's 17 bravest bloggers.

    "The biggest challenge facing women is how they see themselves and their role in the political, economic, and social changes going on around them," says Ziada, who wears a headscarf and is an observant Muslim currently studying International Relations at Tufts University in Boston. "The spring cannot come without flowers. And women are the flowers of the Arab Spring, but if they do not appreciate their own value and societies fail to include them in democratic transformation, the end will not be nice."

    Maria Al-Masani
    Follow on Twitter: @al_Masani

    Maria Al-Masani says she grew up with an abusive father who tried to marry her off at the age of 14. She is now a public relations specialist based in Canada and the founder of Yemen Rights Monitor, a nonpartisan initiative for recording human rights violations in Yemen.
    "Since I can't physically be in Yemen, my goal is to save lives by making it easier for the media to shine light on human rights abuses in Yemen," she says with warm hazel eyes and an unshakable poise that helped her win "Miss Congeniality" at the Miss Universe Canada pageant. She says her heroine is a veiled woman in her hometown of Taiz who walked up to a firing squad, urging them to put down their guns.

    "My dream is that one day," she says, on the verge of tears, "the president of Yemen will get in her car and drive to Saudi Arabia to shake hands with the king."

    Yasmine El-Mehairy
    Follow on Twitter: @SuperMamaME

    Yasmine El-Mehairy is the co-founder and CEO of Super Mama, the first online parenting community in the Middle East that serves as an information hub for Arab mothers. El-Mehairy says many Arab women grew up in a didactic culture in which they are used to being told what to do -- especially when it comes to parenting. She hopes to change that through information, so that "the woman can finally choose what's best for her."

    El-Mehairy says that oftentimes the main source of advice for Arab mothers is their own mothers and grandmothers. But in many cases, she says with a laugh, their experiences are outdated. "We're witnessing generational shifts that have ushered in more Arab mothers working and earning their own money," she says.

    One of the most popularly read sections of the website is called "Daddy Darling." "In our region, most men aren't involved at all in raising the children. They are the money makers but leave all the parenting to us," she explains. "Many mothers want to share critiques with their husbands in an indirect way, so we thought the woman could send her husband articles from the website."
    El-Mehairy says the section has become so popular with men that they now have volunteer male writers contributing. "We are creating change without breaking cultural and traditional characteristics of the region."

    Lamees Dhaif
    Follow on Twitter: @LameesDhaif

    "I come from a country where a mother burned herself because her son was repeatedly tortured," Lamees Dhaif, a 32-year-old journalist, resolutely proclaims. "I come from a country where protests happen every day, but no one talks about it. We are the women of the forgotten revolution."

    Dhaif is from Bahrain
    , a tiny island nation between Saudi Arabia and Iran where the United States bases the Navy's Fifth Fleet and where the Shiite majority has frequently protested its political and economic marginalization by the ruling Khalifa dynasty, which is Sunni.
    When the Arab Spring broke out, the Shiites, with some Sunni allies, took to the streets in huge numbers, demanding a representative and constitutional democracy. Dhaif, a vocal supporter of the protests, left the country in March 2011 after several death threats against herself and her family.

    "Women are punished doubly for speaking out-- one time as a rebel, the other as traitor. If you protest, you're called a prostitute. They used to censor my words, but I don't care," she laughs. She says the number of her followers on Twitter (almost 60,000) exceed the circulation of almost all Bahraini newspapers. "They can stop some now from telling stories, but they can't stop us forever."

    Shahinaz Ahmed
    Follow on Twitter: @Shahinazahmed

    The numbers don't always bode well for Egypt, the fourth-largest economy in the Middle East. The country is grappling with high unemployment, inflation, shrinking foreign investment, labor strikes, declining tourism, and foreign currency reserves that have tumbled to about $10 billion from $36 billion. Forty percent live below the poverty line and unemployment in Egypt has hovered around 12 percent all year.

    Sixty percent of Egyptians are 30 years old or younger, and at least one of every four between ages 18 and 30 are out of work. That's where Shahinaz Ahmed comes in. Ahmed is the CEO of Education For Employment Foundation, a nonprofit that tries to help disadvantaged youth via market-based education. "One of the greatest challenges facing women in the region is freedom of choice," she says. "In order to have such freedom, economic independence is critical."
    At the EFE, almost half of the job candidates are women. EFE provides them with instruction that qualifies them for entry-level positions with private sector companies. It's been able to place 96% of its graduates in formal employment. "A woman's salary in her hand at the end of the month means that she will owe allegiance to herself and not to anyone else," she says. "It is that autonomy and empowerment that influences women's independent choices."

    Fida Ouri
    (Palestinian Authority)
    Follow on Twitter: @Nisaa_FM

    Ouri, 23, is the deputy director and webmaster at 96 NISAA FM ("Nisaa" means women in Arabic), the first women's radio station in the Middle East, based in Ramallah in the West Bank. Ouri, mother of one son, says she's the only Palestinian female webmaster. Born in New York and educated in Florida, Ouri moved back home after her studies in America to "create more opportunities and options for women."

    Ouri says about 70 percent of Palestinian women use the Internet, yet there is still a dearth of outlets designed to address their concerns. The radio station boasts several programs, including "Qahwa Mazboot" ("Coffee that is just right"), which discusses everything from proper nutrition during pregnancy to workplace decisions.

    "We want to inspire women," she says, "as mothers, as wives, as workers, as people."

    Danya Bashir Hobba (Libya)
    Follow on Twitter: @ceoDanya

    Danya Bashir is only 20 years old, but she's already a business owner. She is a two-time winner (the first and only female) of the United Arab Emirates Young Entrepreneurship competition, helping her launch her company "Relora," which focuses on stress management. But the biography on her Twitter account reveals her most lofty goal yet: "The next president of Libya." Just last year, this seemed impossible in a country where Moammar Gadhafi's notorious "Green Book" of political philosophy decreed that a woman's place was in the home.

    Born in Arizona and educated in the UAE, Bashir spent summers in Libya, but had limited contact with most people, even her relatives.

    "My father was a political exile on the blacklist, so I wasn't able to fully connect to the country," she says, deeming her father her hero. "The biggest crime Gadhafi committed was corrupting people's minds."

    During the revolution, Bashir organized shipment for medical treatment and basic needs in Libya. She says 57 percent of the population in Libya is made up of women, and they mostly played a role behind the scenes -- running weapons, smuggling medicine and gathering intelligence. With the fall of Gadhafi, they are reveling in a new freedom to mobilize, but the male-dominated, tribally based society still has a long way to go. Though the country has witnessed a blossoming of dozens of nongovernmental organizations led by women, the 51-member Transitional National Council has just one female member.

    "They need guidance on all fronts, we are starting from zero," Danya says, "but the good thing about this is, people here in Libya are motivated and thirsty to learn about their rights, what it means to really be free, and how they can voice their opinions -- we just need the place and people to help guide and teach us. We'll get there."