Saturday, March 23, 2013

Manal al-Sharif: The Woman Who Dared to Drive

Excellent interview from today's Wall Street Journal with Manal al-Sharif by Sohrab Ahmari. A link to it is here, and the text pasted in below. Lovely portrait of Manal too.

New York - March 23, 2013
'You know when you have a bird, and it's been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn't want to leave. It was that moment."

This is how Manal al-Sharif felt the first time she sat behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's taboo against women driving is only rarely broken. To hear her recount the experience is as thrilling as it must have been to sit in the passenger seat beside her. Well, almost.

Ms. Sharif says her moment of hesitation didn't last long. She pressed the gas pedal and in an instant her Cadillac SUV rolled forward. She spent the next hour circling the streets of Khobar, in the kingdom's eastern province, while a friend used an iPhone camera to record the journey.

It was May 2011, when much of the Middle East was convulsed with popular uprisings. Saudi women's-rights activists were stirring, too. They wondered if the Arab Spring would mark the end of the kingdom's ban on women driving. "Everyone around me was complaining about the ban but no one was doing anything," Ms. Sharif says. "The Arab Spring was happening all around us, so that inspired me to say, 'Let's call for an action instead of complaining.' "

The campaign started with a Facebook page urging Saudi women to drive on a designated day, June 17, 2011. At first the page created great enthusiasm among activists. But then critics began injecting fear on and off the page. "The opponents were saying that 'there are wolves in the street, and they will rape you if you drive,' " Ms. Sharif recalls. "There needed to be one person who could break that wall, to make the others understand that 'it's OK, you can drive in the street. No one will rape you.' "
Portrait by Terry Shoffner

Ms. Sharif resolved to bethat person, and the video she posted of herself driving around Khobar on May 17 became an instant YouTube hit. The news spread across Saudi media, too, and not all of the reactions were positive. Ms. Sharif received threatening phone calls and emails. "You have just opened the gates of hell on yourself," said an Islamist cleric. "Your grave is waiting," read one email.

Aramco, the national oil company where she was working as a computer-security consultant at the time, wasn't pleased, either. Ms. Sharif recalls that her manager scolded her: "What the hell are you doing?" In response, Ms. Sharif requested two weeks off. Before leaving on vacation, however, she wrote a message to her boss on an office blackboard: "2011. Mark this year. It will change every single rule that you know. You cannot lecture me about what I'm doing."

It was a stunning act of defiance in a country that takes very seriously the Quran's teaching: "Men are in charge of women." But less than a week after her first outing, Ms. Sharif got behind the wheel again, this time accompanied by her brother and his wife and child. "Where are the traffic police?" she recalls asking her brother as she put pedal to the metal once more. A rumor had been circulating that, since the driving ban isn't codified in law, the police wouldn't confront female drivers. "I wanted to test this," she says.

The rumor was wrong. As she recounts, a traffic officer stopped the car, and soon members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Saudi morality police, surrounded the car. "Girl!" screamed one. "Get out! We don't allow women to drive!" Ms. Sharif and her brother were arrested and detained for six hours, during which time she stood her ground.

"Sir, what law did I break?" she recalls repeatedly asking her interrogators. "You didn't break any law," they'd say. "You violated orf"—custom.

The siblings were released but Ms. Sharif was rearrested a day later. She was detained for over a week and released only after her father personally pleaded with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for a pardon and pledged to forbid his daughter ever to drive again in the kingdom. Even now, recounting the story at New York's JFK Airport while she waits to board a flight to Dubai, Ms. Sharif's voice trembles with anger: "I was just driving a car!"

Manal al-Sharif was born in the holy city of Mecca to a family of "conservative" but "regular Muslims," as she puts it. "Dad would listen to music," she says. "He would wait for new albums by Umm Kulthum," a widely popular Egyptian pop singer. "My aunt used to wear golden bracelets, and she used to show her hair under her pink hijab."

The family's moderate attitudes were remnants of a way of life that came under severe attack in 1979, the year Ms. Sharif was born. It was a turbulent moment in the region. In Iran, Shiite radicals deposed a socially permissive autocracy and began building a repressive Islamic theocracy. In November 1979 in Saudi Arabia, a band of Sunni jihadis took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing hundreds of worshipers and security forces. It took two weeks and the help of French commandos to break the siege.

The incident, infidel rescuers included, was a huge embarrassment for the reigning al-Saud dynasty, whose monarchs style themselves as "Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques." To prevent future jihadi attacks, "the government did everything it could to please the fundamentalists," Ms. Sharif says. "It gave them control over education and women. So women were removed from all public life in Saudi Arabia, and there is now complete separation between the genders."

The kingdom had always been deeply religious. Yet it was only after the 1979 siege that the al-Saud began promoting radical Islam at home and abroad as a way of staving off challenges to their own legitimacy. Thus was born what former Wall Street Journal publisher and author Karen Elliott House identifies in her book "On Saudi Arabia" as "Islam Inc."—the symbiosis of clerical obscurantism and oil riches that keeps the al-Saud in power.

One result is a society where women make up just 12% of the workforce and own 5% of businesses, a country where 15 young girls were doomed to perish in a 2002 schoolhouse fire after the morality police prevented their rescue because the students were improperly dressed.

Ms. Sharif is in many ways a product of this system, including the public schools she attended in the 1980s and '90s. "They brainwashed kids," she recalls. "They told us, 'This is Islam, and it is our time to rule the world again.' So you were brought up in an atmosphere that made you go for extremism, for hatred of the other, and to fear people who are conspiring against Muslims—against us."

As she grew older, Ms. Sharif started questioning the authorities who would "use the word of God to control people who are like my family." She came to see the painful impact of Islamist ideology on women. Her aunt, for example, once fond of colorful clothes and jewelry, was cowed. She would "listen to these fundamentalist lectures and cry, saying 'it's haram to show your face.' She cried and changed everything about herself."

Then there was the driving ban. Ms. Sharif came to despise the fact that "we're proudly known as the country where women can't drive." In 1990, an earlier generation of women tried, and failed, to challenge the ban. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, about 40 Saudi women organized a "drive-in" protest. They argued that amid a national emergency, when their male guardians might not be available, Saudi women must be permitted to drive.

Predictably, the 1990 drive-ins enraged the religious establishment. "When I was a kid they sent brochures all around the country, with the names of the women and their house numbers, encouraging people to call them and tell them to come back to Islam," Ms. Sharif says. "They said these women had sex with American troops. They said they took off their hijabs and burned them."

Why persist today in the face of still-vicious opposition? Because the campaign to overturn the ban is about more than driving. "Women's rights are nothing but a part of the bigger picture, which is human rights," Ms. Sharif says. "Women are trusted with the lives of their kids, even serve as teachers and doctors, but they aren't trusted with their own lives."

Ms. Sharif has paid a price for living her own life. After she gave a speech about her activism at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, where she was awarded the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, she and her family came under renewed pressure from Islamists. Things got worse when video of the speech went viral on YouTube.

"They said no one will embrace Islam after watching this speech, because what I showed is a violent religion. But what I showed was my personal story," she says, adding that it is "an insult to Islam, to any religion," to suggest that it can be undermined by a personal story.

Ms. Sharif was pushed out of her job in May 2012 and has since relocated to Dubai, where she lives with her Brazilian husband, Rafael. The couple met in 2010 when they were both working for Aramco. She needed permission from Saudi Arabia's interior minister to marry a non-Saudi, says Ms. Sharif, who has a 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. "It's your personal life, and they get their noses into it even at that level."

The minister rejected Ms. Sharif's request to marry a foreigner, and her ex-husband bars her son from traveling outside the kingdom with her, so she can see him only by visiting from Dubai every weekend. "It's the worst thing flying back to Saudi Arabia. I'm on the surveillance list, so every time I go, they stop me and they take more information. They monitor my travel."

The al-Saud rulers, she says, are cracking down on dissidents out of fear that the Arab Spring's reverberations might spread to the kingdom. In early March, two founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association received long jail sentences for, among other things, starting an unlicensed human-rights organization. The arrests, she says are meant "to shush the others, because they talk about the same things we talk about: constitutional monarchy, political parties, having political rights. So they take these people and make an example out of them."

The sentences were handed down less than a week after new Secretary of State John Kerry visited the kingdom. His visit was a disappointment for Ms. Sharif and others who share her outlook. "He just praised Saudi Arabia for appointing 30 women to the unelected Shura council," she says of Mr. Kerry. "It's a fake body anyway, a powerless body. You can't praise something that's not tangible, that's merely a cosmetic change." If American officials aren't willing to criticize the Saudis on their rights record, she says, "at least they shouldn't praise them."

As our interview ends, one question remains: Has Ms. Sharif gotten behind the wheel of a car in the kingdom since the heady days of her campaign? "Yes, I drove again," she says. "I'm a normal woman, a normal person, and I just want to drive."

This bird won't be returning to its cage anytime soon.

Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Saudi urged to gradually allow women to drive cars

Story from Emirates 247 about a member of the Shura Council urging a gradual introduction of women driving in Saudi Arabia. A link to the story is here and the text is pasted in below.

Deputy proposes end to ban in some cities before final decision

A tendency to end a long-standing ban on driving cars by women in Saudi Arabia continued to gain ground, with a parliament member proposing a gradual lifting of the ban in key cities before taking a final decision.

Issa Al Gaith, a member of Shura (appointed parliament) and a court judge, said the ban could have more disadvantages than advantages and that this should prompt authorities to consider allowing women to drive cars.

“Women could be allowed to drive gradually in one city or some cities in the Gulf Kingdom…afterwards, authorities can determine what benefits this decision will bring before they fully enforce it,” he said, quoted by Saudi newspapers.

“Preventing women from driving cars totally is not fair and fully allowing them to drive is also not fair…fairness means that we should devise legal and ethical regulations for female driving…we then give it a try and later enforce it fully.”

Gaith said those who are opposed to driving by women argue that ending the ban could bring disadvantages and unethical practices.

On the other hand, those who support women argue that lifting the ban could put an end to some bad practices including mingling between taxi and private male drivers and Saudi women, he added.

“Why should we remain silent about existing actual bad practices and insist on arguing about possible disadvantages that could result from allowing women to drive…how can we be sure that the disadvantages of allowing women to drive are more than those of banning them…a convincing answer to these questions is to allow women gradually to drive before reaching a final decision,” he said.

“Only then, we will be able to know whether we have committed serious mistakes over the past decades…let’s give it a try and see.”

Last year, Shura said it would start debating whether to allow women to drive cars but no decision has been reached yet.

Officials said any agreement by Shura on such a sensitive issue will have to be endorsed by king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who has maintained silence towards a recent campaign by Saudi women to defy the ban and drive cars in public.

The campaign has resulted in the detention of several women caught driving.
Shura said last year it had received hundreds of letters from women asking it to discuss the issue, adding that it would conduct a comprehensive study on the matter before making any recommendation.

“Those who strongly object to women’s driving are mostly tribal people who stick to long-standing traditions and habits…as for supporters, they are divided into two camps—those who are not interested and those who strongly support it,” said Mashaal Mamdouh, head of the human rights panel in Shura.

Analysts believe the debate on female driving would gain momentum following a recent decision by King Abdullah to allow women to become Shura members for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.

Scores of defiant Saudi women have been arrested over the past two years after they were caught driving. The move was part of a campaign launched by thousands of women on Facebook a year ago to press for an end to the ban on female driving in the conservative Gulf kingdom, which controls over a fifth of the world’s proven oil wealth.

The drive was followed by a counter-campaign by over 1,000 Saudi women to press for keeping the driving ban, saying those who are pressing for lifting the ban are a “weird” minority. Newspapers have published a text of the statement, which said any move by the government to lift the ban would hurt the Islamic religion and destabilize the country.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Shura may discuss women driving issue

This article appeared in the Saudi English daily the Arab News. A link to the story is here, and the text is printed below.

RIYADH: Ghazanfar Ali Khan – March 18, 2013

Women Shura members at work
The Shura Council has accepted a petition that calls for holding fresh discussions on the issue of women driving in a historic move that may eventually facilitate the mobility of women. The petition, signed by 3,000 Saudi citizens including academics, scholars, writers, as well as young Saudi boys and girls, calls for the ban on women driving to be lifted.

"The human rights and petition panel of the Shura Council has studied the petition and has decided that the issue of women driving should be opened for debate on the floor of the house," said a press statement sent yesterday to Arab News by Abdulla Alami, one of the chief campaigners, backing the women's right to drive. "Merely opening the issue for debate will give credibility to the council," Alami added.

A member of the Shoura Council , however, said: "Women driving is just one of several issues, which can or can't be taken up for discussions." It depends on the decision and the recommendations of the specialized panel, he added. This topic is still "not listed for discussion as far as I know," said the Shura member on condition of anonymity. He, however, pointed out that he has been personally gathering information and feedback on this subject.

Referring to the call to end ban on women driving, Alami, who recently published a book titled "When would Saudi women drive?", said the petition submitted to the council calls for holding discussions and lifting the ban on women driving. "I call on the newly appointed women members of the council to join forces and to strongly discuss the subject," said Mohammed Al-Zulfa, a former Shura member, who was the first man to raise the issue in 2006.

"I support the move to allow our women to drive in the capacity of being a Saudi citizen," said Al-Zulfa, adding that the Saudi women drive their cars in different countries where they go for education, business or tourism. In neighboring countries like the UAE alone, about 36 percent of the Saudi female residents drive their cars.

In fact, the driving schools in Dubai have witnessed a dramatic increase in Saudi women candidates seeking training and licenses and about 55 trainees receive licenses every month. Also, the Bahraini General Directorate of Traffic has issued more than 6,000 driving licenses to Saudi women in the past two years.

"A large number of Saudi women also hold international driver's licenses," said a Riyadh-based travel and tourism agency that helps in obtaining international driver's licenses.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A little humor....Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia....

Someone tweeted this, not sure where it appeared first. I hope that as the reality of women driving in Saudi Arabia gets closer, that there are many great opportunities for humor. I know Saudi's have a fantastic sense of humor so it should be fun.

I don't mean to make fun of Saudi society. This is a serious issue, but everywhere in the world, from the U.S. to Australia, women driving is a rich source for humor.

Also, if you read this blog you know that I am confident that when Saudi women do take the wheel in their own country, that the traffic behavior will be much much better. For that reason alone, women should be driving - to slow everyone down to a reasonable speed!

Spotlight on petition to lift driving ban on women

A story from Gulf News. Link to the story is here,  and the text is pasted in below. This is very exciting; the bylaws of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council require it to study petitions it receives.

Shura Council is reviewing call to debate the issue
  • By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief
  • Published: 17:46 March 17, 2013
Manama: The Saudi Committee for Human Rights and Petition has pressed the Shura (Consultative) Council to launch a debate on the right of Saudi women to drive. The move by the committee is based on a study supported by 3,000 Saudi men and women from various parts of the country and calling for an open debate that should allow women to sit behind the steering wheel “in accordance with religious and social norms.”

Under the bylaws, the Shura Council has to respond to all questions, queries and petition.

“Debating the issue of allowing women to drive gives the Council greater credibility and promotes trust among the people who will view them as their representatives who are ready to engage in the debates they suggest,” Sulaiman Al Zayadi, the former head of the rights and petition committee that submitted the petition and requested a date to debate it, said in remarks published by Saudi news site Sabq on Saturday.

The petition was handed before the end of the last session to the committee that approved it and suggested its debate by the Shura Council members.

The new Shura Council, formed in January and which includes 30 women for the first time in its history has not yet looked into the petition.

The study argued that local social and economic developments in Saudi Arabia and the international covenants endorsed by the Saudi kingdom require that Riyadh allow women to drive cars.
An advisory and executive committee should be set up by Saudi Arabia to draw the religious, social and security regulations to allow women to drive as a prelude for social changes that will make the society more recipient to the idea of women driving, the study said.

The committee should be made up of moderate religious scholars and representatives from the foreign, interior, culture and information ministries, human rights watchdogs, the Shura Council human rights committee and other members to be appointed by the king, it said.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Female Saudi students in the US learn to drive

Great story, originally printed in the Arab News but here from MENAFN about Saudi women students in the US learning to drive. A link to the story is here and the text is pasted below. Notice the cost savings aspect - and imagine how this will apply in Saudi Arabia when the law is eventually changed. I don't see a date on this story, so one is not included. I found it on 3/9/13.

(MENAFN - Arab News) The issue of Saudi women driving surfaced again following revelations by the president of the Saudi Students' Club in Flint, Michigan, that they have contacted a US company to teach Saudi female students to learn how to drive.

Abdul Rahman Khalaf Al-Shammari said his club decided to teach female students to solve their transportation problem, adding that they have spent a lot of money on taxis.

"We have set some conditions for training Saudi female students. The company should appoint only women to train our girls," Al-Shammari said, adding that Saudi girls wanted to safeguard their customs and traditions.

He said other Saudi students clubs in the rest of the United States were also planning to teach Saudi female students driving.

"The girls will be taken to and from the driving school by women staff of the company," Al-Shammari said, adding that the move would solve female students' transport problem to a great extent.

Saudi girls have found taxis and public buses unsafe and uncomfortable for them, he said. Al-Shammari's club has published a booklet providing various information required by Saudi students while living in the US.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel Al-Jubeir said statistics issued by the US Department for Homeland Security indicated that problems created by Saudis in the country were much less than those caused by other nationals.

The ambassador disclosed plans to establish a Saudi consulate in Chicago to meet the needs of Saudi students and businessmen. He said the number of Saudis studying in the US has risen from 7,000 to 90,000 during the past seven years.

"The total number of annual Saudi visitors to the US has also jumped from 25,000 to more than 100,000 during the same period," he said.

"Extension of Saudis' visas in the US to five years was one of the main reasons for the increase in the number of visitors," Al-Jubeir said.