Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Women Driving: The Debate Persists

Manal Al-Sharif: The Struggle for Women Driving Continues
"Susie's Big Adventure," one of the blogs of which I've been an avid follower since I was first researching life in Saudi Arabia, recently posted a link to a riveting video.

Manal Al-Sharif is a young Saudi woman, wife and mother. In June 2011, she got behind the wheel in Al-Kohbar, a city in KSA,and defied the ban on women driving. While she drove, a friend videotaped her, and she later posted her "defiant" actions on YouTube. Soon after, she was arrested and put in jail for a little over a week before finally being released on bail. Here's the video she posted on YouTube before her arrest:

Manal's campaign, "Women2Drive," called for women to get together and drive on June 17, 2011. On that day, over 100 women got behind the wheel. The struggle for women to drive in KSA continues, and earlier this week, Manal spoke at the "Oslo Freedom Forum" in Norway. Most notably, she discusses that
"The struggle is not about driving a car, the struggle is about being in the driver's seat of our destiny." 
How true; it goes so far beyond just driving, although driving is itself a very real issue as the above video makes clear. Here's the link to her 17 minute speech. It's a fascinating call to female empowerment in Saudi Arabia, and provides a really enlightening recent history of Saudi Arabia. I learned so much about why things are the way they are here (especially in regards to extremism, and the situation for women), and how things have evolved so rapidly (and largely positively) from the frightening mentality that began in the 1970s and 80s.


The personal experience: frustrating!!!
Interestingly, just two weeks ago, a friend of mine who grew up here in Saudi posted on my facebook page that a mutual friend "saw a woman driving the other day I swear! I think some women here have [become really defiant] lol I'd be scared of the law!!" It just goes to show how strong the "social norm" here is: men belong behind the wheel--in all aspects of life. Women do not. Did you hear Mahal's words? Extremist thinking about gender segregation means that most not only do restaurants, banks, schools, etc here have separate entrances for men and women; this often extends to our homes! That's an interesting topic for another blog!! :)

In any case, don't get me started on why it's SO wrong that men are in control...especially on the roads. From personal experience, it's more frustrating than I expected that men can drive and women cannot. Firstly, the roads here are crazy. Nuts. Insane. At best, I have white knuckles when we're going anywhere. And my husband is a good driver! At worst, it's absolutely terrifying, and I'm often very anxious sitting in the passenger's seat.

When I was in Kuwait, my friend and I were in a cab going around a roundabout, and she said that driving in Kuwait City is scary. If that's the case, I can't find words enough to describe the effects of 100% testosterone governing Saudi roads. Not to mention that half of the population is under, what, 25 years of age? That puts mostly 6-25 year old guys behind the wheel.

The driving age is WHAT?!?!
That brings up another point. The above age range was NOT a typo! Walahi (meaning, "I swear," in Arabic), IT WASN'T!!!! Manal mentions this in the first video above. Little boys who can barely see over the steering wheel routinely drive here. Even in our building there's a kid who goes out most days in the family SUV. DH and I frequently witness his attempts to park the large vehicle.

Last week we were at IKEA and there was an older woman sitting in the passenger's seat of a giant SUV, and guess what? She was being driven by what looked like her 8 year old grandson. YES! A completely adept, evidently visually and mentally capable woman was taking the figurative back seat to her grandson! Who knows how this is allowed to happen!!

Wasta!! (It's high time I mentioned this one!)
Wasta, my husband says, is the reason for the above question. That's the Arabic word for "connection" or "favour." Basically, if a person in this country--or I think in the Arab world in general?--has a connection to a "higher-up" (a prince, someone who works for the government, or perhaps the traffic police in this case) then the law can't really touch him or his family. He'll get out of anything that might go wrong. So, a mother sending her 8 year old son to pick up some yogurt and tomatoes for her cooking is just fine, so long as her family has wasta!

Back again soon!
Anyways, it's a busy time with the university semester winding down (and my marking piling sky high!), but I realized it was high time for me to blog again. When I saw Susie's post and Manal's talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I just had to write something brief on the matter. (Here's the link to Susie's post by the way: http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/2012/05/manal-al-sharif-oslo-freedom-forum-2012.html)

Your Turn!
What do YOU think? Does Manal have a point? Or are we all missing the "luxury" of being chauffered around by our drivers (if we're lucky; I'm not!), husbands, brothers, and 6 year old sons? Let me know what you think in the comments box below. :)