When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia on September 7, 1978, Saudi women were struggling to obtain the right to drive, as well as other freedoms. Seeing the enormous changes happening in that desert kingdom, I felt certain that a new day was coming, and that soon Saudi women would soon be allowed to drive, as well as gain many other freedoms taken for granted by women all over the world. (Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not allow women behind the wheel of an automobile.) Although over the following 12 years when I lived in Riyadh, I lived to see many changes come to Saudi, those changes were not what I expected. Instead, the rules against women tightened. This happened in part due to political turmoil in Iran as well as an attack upon the Holy Mosque in Mecca. The Saudi rulers (led by King Khalid) were horrified to witness a popular uprising against the Shah, ending in the takeover by religious clerics. They were concerned that a similar uprising would occur in the kingdom. Then the Holy Mosque was attacked and the frightened Saudi government was put in the uncomfortable position of requesting the French government to send in special troops to assist in subduing the horde of men who had overtaken the mosque. Although the siege ended in success, and the criminals were executed by beheading, the Saudi royal family caved into the demands made by the criminals, and then by the clerics. Many of those demands had to do with the loosening of female bondage. Those men were enraged that there was talk of freedom for women. In an instant, all speculation that women would soon gain the right to drive ended. Although Saudi women have made other important gains, they were never allowed the right to drive.
Now, 33 years later, the topic of female drivers is the talk of the kingdom. This is due to one exceptionally brave woman, Manal al-Sharif, who is a divorced mother. Manal works as a computer-security consultant and has a difficult time getting to work and running mundane errands. Why? It costs a lot of money to afford a driver. Manal has to ride in taxis, which creates a multitude of problems for women. Many taxis will not pick up female passengers. Others believe females who go out of the home alone are prostitutes, so those ignorant men create a special danger for traveling alone females. I’ve heard that most Saudi women taking taxis have to fend off suggestive proposals from the drivers.
Manal recently posted a video of herself driving, to show the world that even with the veil, she was capable of obeying traffic laws and did not create any danger to other drivers or passengers. She also called for June 17th to be a day of protest, that all women should drive, similar to the protest during the first Gulf war when women took the keys to their family cars and drove through the streets. (Sadly, that day ended badly for the women with most losing their jobs, their right to attend university, among other things. One woman was murdered by her father, while others were never married.)
Did the Saudi government sit up and take notice of Manal’s video? Yes, but not in the way we would have liked. Rather than congratulate Manal on her safe driving, and acknowledging that women have many challenges due to their driverless lives, they arrested her. After Manal was arrested, her child was taken from her. After her arrest and imprisonment, Manal called off the June 17th day of protest and really, who can blame her? What mother will risk losing her child forever? I would not. Additionally, there is now an ongoing campaign in the kingdom calling for all husbands and fathers to use the cords of their headdresses to whip females who dare to call for rights to drive. This encourages men of a certain mind-set to beat their wives and daughters. (I know of one recent case where a Saudi woman was permanently blinded after her husband beat her severely on her head and face. Then he divorced her for being blind and took their two daughters away. There is no help for this woman as her husband’s family will not intervene, nor will her own family help, telling her that it was her fault that she didn’t keep her husband happy. And, the government does not interfere as they say it is a man’s right to monitor and keep the women of his family on a correct path.) I wept when learning of her plight. Just imagine her hopelessness.
After writing the books about Princess Sultana, the courageous princess who revealed the horrors of life for many Saudi women, I was called by various male members of the Saudi royal family, disappointed or angry men who said they had believed me to be their friend. My standard answer was always this: “I am a friend of all Saudis, and this includes Saudi females. Think of me as someone who is taking up for 50% of your population. And, consider this: Until your country gives all its citizens the right to live in dignity, there will always be a dark cloud hanging over the kingdom.”
I still believe this to be the case. The Saudis have so many good qualities, yet their often vile treatment of women cancels out the good they do.
When will the men in power in Saudi Arabia realize that until they give women the most basic rights, that they will always be looked upon as a backward land, regardless of how nice most Saudis are. Never once in the 12 years I lived there was I personally mistreated. I was welcomed into their lives in a most kindly manner. Since I was not a native woman, my life there was enjoyable and easy. But it was painful to see how differently they treated me, a western woman, to the women in their lives.
I call on King Abdullah and his half-brothers who rule, to create positive change in their country, and that good change will involve allowing women to drive themselves to work, to the supermarket, to their children’s schools, and to visit their mothers and sisters. Good change means that there should never be a call for men to beat women.
I’ve never met a Saudi woman who coveted the total freedom experienced by women in the west. So they are not pushing for freedoms that will harm the conservative life lived by most in Saudi Arabia. Rather they are requesting the right to perform daily errands so necessary to daily life.
Here’s to the brave women of Saudi Arabia. The time has come for the American government to make this topic a top priority in their dealings with King Abdullah and the other men in the Al-Saud family.