Friday, March 28, 2014

Saudi Women Renew Fight For Right to Drive

This Associated Press article appeared in the 3/27/14 issue of the Huffington Post, coinciding with a visit by US President Barak Obama to Saudi Arabia. A link to the article is here, and the story is posted below.

Story by Aya Batrawy

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In the six months since Saudi activists renewed calls to defy the kingdom's ban on female drivers, small numbers of women have gotten behind the wheel almost daily in what has become the country's longest such campaign.

Organizers are calling on more women to join in on Saturday, when President Barack Obama visits Riyadh.

The activists say their long-term goal is not just to win Saudi females the freedom to drive, but to clear a path for broader democratic reforms.

This week, 70 members of the U.S. Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Obama urging him to raise critical human rights cases in Saudi Arabia and meet with female activists. So far the White House has only announced plans for Obama to meet King Abdullah and U.S. Embassy staff.

Amnesty International urged the president to go even further and select a female Secret Service agent as his driver while in Saudi Arabia — a move that is highly unlikely, since Obama is coming to the kingdom for the first time since 2009 to repair strained relations between the U.S. and its Arab ally.
Since Oct. 26, the first day of the renewed campaign, more than 100 women have gotten behind the wheel, said Eman al-Nafjan, an organizer.

So far, the government appears unwilling to launch a crackdown.

While it is still uncommon to see women driving in Saudi Arabia, they have been sending videos and photos of themselves behind the wheel to the campaign's organizers, who then upload the footage to YouTube almost daily.

"It's very hard to strategize in a place where political activism has no history," al-Nafjan said. "So our strategy is to keep marching on and to see if people join or not."

Naseema al-Sada has driven in the eastern region of Qatif. She said public attitudes have changed in the past six months, as evidenced by the way the campaign is openly talked about in the Saudi media.
"Women's rights are no longer a taboo subject," she said.

In an opinion piece this week published by the Saudi-based Arab News website, columnist Sabria Jawhar wrote that Saudi society either accepts or is indifferent to women getting behind the wheel now.

"If Oct. 26 has taught us anything, the driving ban is a government position. I have said many times in this column that I and most of the women I know want the right to drive whether we actually get behind the wheel or not," she wrote.

Activists say allowing women to drive will have a domino effect for civil rights in Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is effectively the law of the land. Women must get permission from a male relative — usually a husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son — to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.
"And this is what scares people: That women will be out of the total control of men," al-Sada said.
Though there is no law on the books that explicitly bars women from driving, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the traffic police in Saudi Arabia, will not issue driver's licenses to women.

So far, the ministry has warned that violators will be dealt with firmly.

Police have also privately told the campaigners not to speak to the media, warned them not to drive and followed some around for days.

Women caught driving have been forced to sign pledges not to do it again. If they are caught again, they are pressured to sign another pledge. A male relative is called to pick them up from a police station or on the side of the road. The men are then made to sign pledges they will not let the women drive.

In one case, a woman's car was confiscated and has not been returned to her since January. In another, writer and schoolteacher Tariq al-Mubarak was detained for several days and interrogated when police found out that the mobile phone number used by organizers was registered under his name.
Still, the government response is more muted than in the past. During the first major protest, in 1990, around 50 women drove. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. Their male relatives were also barred from traveling for six months.

Then in June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. One woman was later arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes. The king overturned the sentence.

Madeha al-Ajroush, who was part of the first driving campaign more than two decades ago, said she wants Obama to address human rights while in Saudi Arabia.

"We're not oil; we're also people," al-Ajroush said. "The humanity of Saudi Arabia needs to be looked at seriously."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Woman driver in Riyadh gets both praise and criticism

Saudis bitterly divided over allowing women to drive. 

Gulf News story from March 26, 2014 - Link to the story here. Text is below.
  • By Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief
  • Published: 14:27 March 26, 2014
Manama: Saudis have heaped praise and criticism in equal measure on a Saudi woman who posted a video clip of her driving in the capital Riyadh.

In the one-minute clip, the veiled woman said that her name was Lateefa Al Ubairi and that she had a driving licence from the US. She added that she was looking forward to obtaining a driving licence from her country.

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia even though there is no legal text that bans them from driving. However, women, if found driving, are pulled over by traffic police for doing so without a Saudi licence. They are allowed to go home after they sign a pledge not to drive again.
Attempts by women and their supporters to get permission to drive have become more intense lately, but the challenges in overcoming the stiff resistance of conservatives are proving singularly formidable.


Both camps have been using religious, economic and social arguments to reinforce their positions.
The chasm between them was again made very clear in reactions to Lateefa’s post on social networking websites.

“What you have done is fantastic. Driving is your right,” Saud, a commenter, told Lateefa on the internet.

Badr Sary, another commenter, said that the clip was a great response to the extremists.
“Do go forward so that extremists do not get their way. I wish all women would drive cars despite the resistance of all those who mind women driving, but do not mind women sitting alone with foreign drivers,” Badr wrote.

However, Saudis who oppose allowing women to drive have called for stringent measures against those who get behind the wheel.

“She should be apprehended by the police for breaking the law and the orders of the interior ministry,” Fahad posted. “She should be punished severely for her defying behaviour.”
Maram, in her comments, said that she was looking forward to strong action against women who insisted on driving.

“I pray to God that the king and the people of Saudi Arabia would never allow women to drive because there would be huge problems and moral issues in the country, and we do not need any of that,” she said.

Several Saudis opposed to women driving have warned that campaigns to allow women to drive were initiated and supported by liberals intent on “corrupting the country’s morals and undermining its social values”.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Manal Al-Sharif's memoir, DARING TO DRIVE to be published in 2015

Congratulations to Manal Al-Sharif, whose forthcoming memoir, DARING TO DRIVE: Growing Up Female in A Men-Onlly Kingdom, was recently sold to Simon and Schuster and is slated to be published in fall, 2015. Below is the blurb from Publishers Marketplace. Kudos to her- and notice it was sold at auction, which means several publishers were vying for this book.

From Publishers Marketplace:
Manal Al-Sharif's DARING TO DRIVE: Growing Up Female in A Men-Only Kingdom, A Memoir of Saudi Arabia, about growing-up female in Saudi Arabia, describing how even the smallest aspects of everyday life are influenced by the country's male guardianship system by one of the leaders of the movement to allow women to drive in the kingdom who was awarded the first Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent and named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World; it covers her arrest and imprisonment for driving as well as hitherto unknown details of her coming of age and her assessment of the kingdom's future, to Priscilla Painton at Simon & Schuster, at auction, for publication in Fall 2015, by Peter Bernstein and Amy Bernstein at Bernstein Literary Agency (World).
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Women driving: Don’t interfere in our domestic issues

Saudi journalist Sabria S. Jawhar writes in the Saudi English language daily, the Arab News on March 24, 2014. A link to the story is here,  and the text is pasted in below.

- Sabria S. Jawhar
US President Barack Obama during his visit to Saudi Arabia on March 28 is expected to defend the United States’ position on Iran, Syria and Egypt. America’s warmer relations with Iran, in particular, have affected the 70-year relationship between the two countries.

Obama’s abandonment of the Egyptian government, a vital Saudi ally, and his failure to intervene last fall when there was documented evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill civilians has angered the entire region.

America and Saudi Arabia have always enjoyed a close and binding relationship and it’s only now there has been some disagreements.

In view of the new developments, the Saudi government has taken the initiative to forge strong ties with non-western countries.

It’s quite a surprise when Amnesty International demonstrated breathtaking naiveté in an ill-considered campaign to get Obama raise women’s driving issue during his visit to the Kingdom. Amnesty International also wants Obama to meet with Saudi women who protested the driving ban last Oct. 26.

Here we have two countries warily circling each other following profound changes in American foreign policy, which could conceivably alter their future relationship for decades to come, and the human rights group feels the timing is perfect to play dirty.

Of course there is no religious justification for banning Saudi women from driving. We also know now that Saudi society either accepts or is indifferent to women getting behind the wheel. If Oct. 26 has taught us anything, the driving ban is a government position. I have said many times in this column that I and most of the women I know want the right to drive whether we actually get behind the wheel or not.

But the tone-deaf Amnesty International thinks it’s prudent for Obama to raise women’s driving issue. Here’s the point I see: At the precise moment that Obama needs to bridge the obvious gap between Saudi Arabia and his administration, the world’s largest and most respected human rights organization wants to thrust an obscene gesture right in Saudis’ faces.

The human rights group argues that Saudi women would “benefit from global solidarity.” While Saudi women’s social media campaign has certainly publicized their efforts, the impact of global solidarity is questionable.

Amnesty International consistently ignores that Saudis will not under any circumstances accept the imposition of a foreign government’s will on Saudi Arabia. Any foreign agenda will be rejected. Even many supporters of the women driving issue will not accept external intervention. Our pride and dignity preclude such interference and only Saudis will effect change.

Yes, the world needs to know that we want our rights guaranteed in Islam, but having heads of state exert external pressure on domestic issues smack of stupidity. Saudi Arabia certainly hasn’t indulged in putting pressure on the French government to lift its niqab ban or Switzerland’s minaret ban. Saudi Arabia also hasn’t made efforts to curb the rise in power of anti-Muslim political parties. Yet Amnesty International sees fit to interfere in domestic issues here.

If Saudi Arabia had a track record of bowing to international scrutiny, then maybe such a plan would work. But really, since when has the Saudi government ever expressed the slightest concern over what any western country says about Saudi women driving?

Driving advocates have myriad tools available to wage their campaign, not the least of which is social media. Applying pressure to President Obama to join in the campaign will backfire. Such a campaign also seriously misreads the status of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Reposting from Saudi Woman's Weblog: Sixth of November at the Riyadh Book Fair

Reposting from the excellent blog: Saudi Women's Weblog - which is written by Eman al-Nafjan. She is translating an important book about the first Saudi women's 'drive-in' that took place on November 6, 1990. A link to the blog is here, text pasted below.

Date: March 13, 2014 - Today at the Riyadh Book Fair, Dr. Aisha Al Mana and Dr. Hissa Al Sheikh sat down to sign their book documenting the first demonstration to lift the ban on women driving on November 6th, 1990. Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush was there too with her camera and was kind enough to share the photos she took here. Dr. Al Ajroush had participated in the 1990 demonstration and is the only Saudi woman to take part in every single demonstration and movement to lift the ban on women driving since the first one. She’s also a renowned photographer who has at this year’s book fair an aisle named in her honor.
I’m currently in the process of translating the Sixth of November book. Scroll down to read a sample of the book in English.
Dr. Aisha Al Mana (left), Aziza Al Yousef (center), and Dr. Hissa Al Shiekh (right)
Dr. Aisha Al Mana (left), Aziza Al Yousef (center), and Dr. Hissa Al Shiekh (right)
Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush under the sign for the aisle named in her honor.
Dr. Madiha Al Ajroush under the sign for the aisle named in her honor.
Security guards make sure that book signings are gender segregated.
Security guards make sure that book signings are gender segregated.
A view of the crowd lining up to say hello and get their books signed.
A view of the crowd lining up to say hello and get their books signed.

Sample from the book:

At around 2:30 in the afternoon of November 6th 1990, a good crowd of women started showing up at the parking lot of the Safeway supermarket. Some were driven there by their drivers and others were driven their by their husbands or sons. Once at the parking lot, the chauffeurs, husbands and sons relinquished the cars to the women. The number of women outnumbered the number of cars available. There were forty-seven women and fourteen cars taking part in the demonstration. Not all of the women knew each other and some had never met before that fateful day.
Every woman with a valid driving license obtained from abroad assumed the driver’s seat in each car while the other women got in the passenger’s seats for support. As the prayer call for the afternoon prayer began, the women started their cars. Their husbands, sons and drivers stood in the parking lot, in silence, watching. The simplicity and justice of the movement lent it a reverence that enabled the women to trust in each other and have the courage to act together in their shared cause.
The women started driving their cars one after the other. At the head of the demonstration was a car driven by Wafa Al Muneef followed by another driven by Dr. Aisha Al-Mana. They started on King Abdulaziz street and went on to Ouroba street and then took a left onto Thalatheen Street. The stop lights slowed some of them down. The cars at the beginning of the movement would every once in awhile slow down so that the cars behind could catch up, as they had decided that they would stay together. The scene drew spectators both pedestrians and other car drivers. They stood in shock and disbelief but did not interfere with the procession.
Emboldened by the fact that the police had not stopped them or paid them any attention, the women at the head of the demonstration decided to drive another round. It was at the beginning of the second round that the police finally intervened and stopped the women. The police stopped the women’s cars one by one in a line against the pavement in front of The Riyadh Palace Function Hall on King Abdul Aziz street. The presence of members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Religious Police) shortly followed the appearance of the police.
The first thing the policemen did after stopping the demonstration was to ask the women to produce their driving licenses. One woman quickly handed over a valid driving license she had obtained from the U.S.A. Faced with this awkward situation, the perturbed policemen called for their superior who arrived just as the members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice did. The Commission members requested that the police entrust the women and the investigation over to the Commission. The women opposed the idea completely and the police refused as well.

President Obama: Take a Drive for Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Next week President Obama will visit Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has put together an e-mail campaign to urge President Obama to not only bring female personnel with him, but to speak up about women's rights and human rights in general.

Link to the Amnesty International page: here.

In case your link doesn't work, below is the text from the Amnesty International page:
Take Action On This Issue This month, President Obama is going to Saudi Arabia on what The New York Times called a "fence-mending" trip. That’s the wrong approach.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving. Saudi Arabian women continue to face severe discrimination and other restrictions in law and practice.
Tell President Obama to stand up for human rights while in Saudi Arabia. Urge him to select a female Secret Service officer to be his driver while in Saudi Arabia, meet with Saudi Arabian women who have protested the driving ban, and meet with the family members of imprisoned peaceful human rights activists.

Text of the e-mail petition you can sign on the link above:

I join Amnesty International in calling on you to take a strong stand for women's human rights when you visit Saudi Arabia this month.  Please advocate for significant human rights reforms in your meetings with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and other Saudi Arabian officials. 

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. This is part of a larger pattern of discrimination against women in law and practice. Not only that, but the overall human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is abysmal.  

The government of Saudi Arabia is responsible for an ongoing crackdown against peaceful human rights defenders. In addition, migrant workers and ethnic and religious minorities face significant human rights violations as well. Anyone who speaks out against flaws in the system risks being branded a "terrorist" and tossed in a jail cell.

It is time for a powerful statement that will strengthen the ongoing efforts of both women human rights activists and other human rights defenders who are calling for change and reform.

I urge you to take the following public steps to show your support for human rights in Saudi Arabia:

- Select a female Secret Service officer to be your driver while in Saudi Arabia.

- Seek a meeting with Saudi Arabian women who have protested the driving ban.

- Seek a meeting with the family members of imprisoned peaceful human rights activists.

I also urge you urging to champion the following human rights reforms in your meetings in Saudi Arabia:

- Ending severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

- Ending torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

- Ending discrimination against women.

I'm concerned that the U.S. government has put geopolitics and oil ahead of human rights in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. As an ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia has been spared the blunt criticisms that U.S. officials make of other governments that commit serious human rights violations. Your upcoming visit is an opportunity to end this discrepancy.

Your personal support for human rights in Saudi Arabia is vital. While U.S. officials may have privately called for human rights reforms in the past, these efforts have failed to produce results.  I urge you to take public action and directly advocate for reform to demonstrate that the United States is standing with Saudi Arabian human rights activists.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this important matter.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Manal al-Sharif May Be Saudi Arabia's Most Awesome Woman

Great piece in the 3/15/14 Huffington Post by Sasha Bronner
Link to the story here the story is pasted below.

Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi Arabian woman who sparked a protest movement when she defied the ban on women drivers with a YouTube video of herself behind the wheel, has been called the Rosa Parks of her country.
But don't call her an activist.
Al-Sharif, honored Friday in Beverly Hills, Calif., at a Women In The World luncheon hosted by former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown, said she resents the label. The annual event, begun in 2009, aims at “telling unknown stories of the women who live behind the lines of the news.”
“To me, if you see something wrong, you have to speak up," al-Sharif said in an interview with Brown on stage. "Labeling people who speak up against horrible things makes other people not want to be labeled,” she explained. “So I’m totally against the word. I’m just a human being who would not accept being wronged.”
Al-Sharif, a columnist, blogger and women’s rights advocate, told the luncheon audience of mostly female media and entertainment figures the harrowing story of her 2011 YouTube video.
“I almost got kidnapped trying to find a taxi in the street," she said. "In Saudi Arabia, it’s not normal for a woman to walk in the street alone, and I don’t cover my face, so I am an open target. I was walking at 9 p.m. trying to find a taxi for a ride home, and someone followed me and I had to throw a stone at this guy to protect myself. That was very defining for me. So many things lead to other things,” including the video.
Saudi law bans all women from driving, so her video ignited a storm of conversation -- not just in her country, but all over the world.
“I had no clue when I posted that video online that what happened would happen," she said. "It was part of a movement called Women2Drive. I had no clue it would be a trending video that day on YouTube and that it would put me in jail,” al-Sharif said.
“It got a lot of talk. I remember one guy from Australia commented on the video asking why everyone was watching this video! Because it was me speaking in Arabic and it hadn’t been translated. It was just me driving.
"The government stayed very quiet while the whole country went really crazy over this video. ‘How could she dare to drive and post it online?’ they said. I was very anxious about what the government was going to do.”
While waiting, al-Sharif got into a car with her brother and drove past a police car. “They called the religious police, I was taken into interrogation and then they let me go. But they came again to my house at 2 a.m. and took me to jail,” she said. She spent the next nine days in prison.
“It was shocking even to the people who were against me -- those who hated me for driving. Because even though I had broken the law, I was a mother and they were really shocked and mad at the government for putting me in jail. So they started a petition. The whole world knew about it. The news traveled to Japan, Malaysia, India, you name it. Everyone knew that I was the woman arrested for driving a car.”
Al-Sharif explained that Saudi clerics believe allowing women to drive will lead to broken marriages, low birth rates and adultery.
“Nothing pisses off Saudi men or religious people like a woman behind the driving wheel,” she said. “It was very interesting because you can talk about women’s rights all your life, but nothing will bring attention to the issue like this video a woman driving. One religious opinionist said a woman driving will damage her ovaries. So now it’s not just religious -- it’s scientific!”
The mythology of women in the Saudi culture goes much deeper than the ban on driving. “In Saudi Arabia, they always tell us we are queens. We are pistachios. You know the nut? Like something that is protected. So even if you have a very good education, restraints are put on women. It’s like saying, 'I know you have feet, God gave you feet, but I’m going to cut them off and put you in a wheelchair -- and wherever you want to go, I will take you,'” said al-Sharif.
“I went to a technology conference in Germany and there were these beautiful, model-like women standing there in front of the products. I asked a question and she had no clue what the product was. She had to call someone from the back to explain it to me. To me, that’s using a woman as an object. To me, that’s totally wrong.”
She continued: “In Saudi Arabia, it’s the opposite side. It’s demonizing the woman. Her body is demonized. She is told not to use her body. Both ways are totally extreme. There should be some moderate way.”
Al-Sharif’s defiance has inspired change in her country. More women are now driving.
“If we keep quiet, nothing will change," al-Sharif said. "And usually the regimes are very comfortable unless you shake the ground under them. What you do is keep shaking the ground.”
Tina Brown and Women In The World will celebrate its fifth anniversary in April in New York City. Learn more here.