Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Saudi Women in the Driver’s Seat

by Isobel Coleman
June 15, 2011

Cars travel along King Fahd main road in Riyadh, as banners are hung to welcome Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, February 21, 2011 (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters).

Last month, women activists in Saudi Arabia launched the Women2Drive campaign on Facebook, calling on Saudi women with international or foreign drivers’ licenses to get behind the wheel of a car on June 17 and demand the right to drive. Saudi Arabia has the distinction of being the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Indeed, in a region where women’s rights lag in many respects, Saudi Arabia stands out as the most oppressive place. According to a 2010 Freedom House study, Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia came in last on almost every measure of political, civil, economic, and legal rights for women.

While it is unlikely that the protest drive on June 17 will fundamentally alter the situation for Saudi women, it does represent a watershed moment. This is the largest organized protest by Saudi women and so far, the leaders of the campaign have refused to back down even in the face of harsh government repression. One of the organizers, Manal al-Sharif, has already spent more than a week in jail for her crime of driving publicly last month. Saudi authorities have made it clear that they will not tolerate this flagrant disobedience on the part of women, vowing to arrest any who dare to drive on Friday. The women have taken their cause to the global media, giving numerous interviews on international television and sending an open letter both to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and High Representative Catherine Ashton of the European Union asking for their support. Tens of thousands of people around the world have signed the letters.

Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it has no interest in allowing the winds of change blowing across the Middle East to reach its desert shores. It has quickly and decisively put down any signs of internal unrest while using its vast resources to prop up the status quo in the other Arab monarchies, from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain. Its harsh reaction to the Women2Drive campaign is as much, if not more, against the women’s civil disobedience, and their threatening use of social media to organize, as it is against the act of driving. The government rightly sees this as the thin edge of a wedge that could crack open Saudi Arabia’s medieval system in ways that could spin out of control.

Yet Saudi rulers are naïve to think that they can keep women in perpetual servitude and sustain their system of gender apartheid in the 21st century. More and more Saudi women, who now make up the majority of college graduates in the kingdom, understand that the restrictions on their lives, justified in the name of religion, are not for the most part based on Islam. After all, the Quran says nothing about a woman not being allowed to drive. Saudi women are increasingly aware that Muslim women in other Gulf countries have more rights than they do and they are asking why. I hope many of them find the courage to defy the authorities and take to the streets on Friday. And I hope Secretary Clinton issues a strong statement of support for these brave women asking for nothing more than a bit of freedom.

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