The Human Rights Group ‘Saudi Women for Driving’ Urges Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Publicly Support Their Cause
If you haven’t been following the Saudi Women for Driving campaign, you should check it out. While here in the U.S. we take driving for granted irrespective of gender, in Saudi Arabia women are literally putting their lives on the line by getting behind the wheel.
Twitter has been a great source for real-time information on these women and it’s fascinating to see their tweets while they are in the car. Unfortunately, the backlash by the repressive, brutal House of Saud, has been swift and some of the women have been arrested.
The group sometimes referred to as Women 2 Drive, started by a group of Saudi women including Manal Al Sharif (who has since been arrested), used Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to organize a protest which called on Saudi women to take to their cars today, June 17:
A group of Saudi Arabian women have called again for women to drive their cars on June 17, in defiance of the social stigma on female drivers in the Kingdom. The group, “Women 2 Drive”, says that it’s not against the law for them to drive their own cars — citing the Kingdom’s Traffic Law itself — and that it is social stigma holding them back. “Every woman has something to do in the city, she’ll just drive, do her business and come back. So, it’s as simple as that. People can’t call it a demonstration, we’re not going against the law, we’re not going against anyone, we’re not even demonstrating,” Manal Al Sharif, one of the organisers told a local newspaper from Saudi Arabia. Manal said the whole idea of the initiative came from the frustration of 20-year-old King Faisal University, Islamic Studies student Bahia Al Mansour.
Bahia found it increasingly hard to physically attend university and started failing, after difficulties in arranging transport. Public transport is not available.Consequently,many women have to hire private drivers, which Manal said sometimes cost women a lot of money.”Two-thirds of our salaries go to drivers and we keep one-third of our salaries to ourselves. There’s no public transport either. You can’t walk in the street, you can’t drive your own car, there’s no public transportation, you have to take a taxi or a private driver,” she said. She said official statistics show there are two million women in the workforce and approximately 750,000 private drivers.The group’s Facebook event has drawn more than 5,100 attendees and has more than 2,800 Twitter followers.
Manal said many women in the Kingdom were under the impression that driving their own cars is illegal. “Women are shocked when they learn there’s no law,” she said, “there’s no problem with women driving.”She said fear prevents women from taking the step. “Women 2 Drive” conducted an online study, garnering 1,239 respondents.A total of 84 per cent support women starting to drive on June 17. While 57 per cent said they were not going to drive their own car on the day, 81 per cent of respondents also said that they did not have a driver’s licence. Finally, the majority — 82 per cent — did want to get a driver’s licence if they didn’t have one. “Us women we will change — then the society will start accepting. If you wait for change it will never happen,” Manal said.
In 1990, a fatwa was issued against women driving, after a number of Saudi women drove a convoy of cars through Riyadh in protest of regulations prohibiting them from doing so.
Here is more information on Manal Al Sharif.
Here is a copy of their letter to Secretary Clinton:
Dear Secretary Clinton
We are leading Saudi Women’s rights activists and we write this open letter – endorsed by thousands of United States citizens – to express our deep concern over the US government’s public silence on the issue of Saudi women’s right to drive.
Saudi Arabia, one of the strongest and longest standing US allies in the Middle East, is also the only country on earth where women are not allowed to drive, or even ride a bicycle, often dubbed ‘the world’s largest women’s prison’. As Saudi women our lack of freedom of movement places an extreme burden on our lives. We lack a public transportation system and the most basic errands and medical appointments are missed due to the difficulty and expenses of arranging transportation, notwithstanding educational and work opportunities. Many from our religious establishment openly state that the reason they prohibit women from driving is to keep women at home and in need of men. Our lack of this basic right to drive our own cars has been repeatedly exploited by abusive fathers, brothers, husbands and even hired drivers. Just this week a Saudi woman reported she was raped by her driver.
On May 22, 2011, a Saudi technology consultant and mother named Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving her own car. Unable to find a safe and reliable driver, she was fed up and decided to take a stand not just for herself but for Saudi women across this country. Over the past few days, more than 50,000 people from 156 countries around the world have joined our campaigns calling for Manal to be released and acquitted of all charges. Manal’s activism has also led to copycat incidents, with women all over the country posting videos of themselves driving. As momentum grows, we are calling for women across Saudi Arabia to begin driving openly and en masse on June 17. In the context of the Arab Spring and US commitments to support nonviolent movements for democracy, now is the time for US leaders to show their support for Saudi women’s rights.
We were encouraged to see media reports that US diplomats have quietly pressured the Saudi government to give women the right to drive… But given the recent arrests of women trying to drive, now is the time for the US to show its muscle and make that pressure public.
We write to ask that you make a public statement supporting Saudi women’s right to drive. We do not make this request lightly, but we believe that you making a public statement of support for Saudi Arabia opening the country’s roads to women would be a game changing moment.
Secretary Clinton, you are a friend. Indeed, some of us have met you personally during your decades-long journey as a champion of women’s rights all over the world. Now, as we build the largest Saudi women’s protest movement in decades, we need your help.
God bless you.
Saudi Women for Driving (سعوديات يطالبن بالقيادة)
While Saudi Arabia is an important ally, if the U.S. wants to be taken seriously on the human rights front, particularly in light of the democracy and rights movements sweeping across the Arab world, then the government needs to say something publicly about this. I don’t think anyone expects the Obama administration to rip into Saudi Arabia and publicly embarrass them, but to fall back on the excuse of “well, we speak to them in private” really won’t cut it anymore. By not speaking out publicly, the U.S. is enabling the Saudi regime’s attempts to silence these protesters. If women in Libya, Egypt and Iran are worth a public show of support from this administration, certainly so are the brave women of Saudi Arabia.