All I did was ask for rights. I didn’t attack anyone. I didn’t harass anyone. I didn’t oppose the system or the country or the authority. All I said is, ‘Why can’t I drive?’
I was born and grew up in a country where it was nothing out of the ordinary for women to drive. My mother drove. My aunt drove her own car. And now I live in a country where women drive cars, buses and vans. Imagine not being about to drive to work, drop your kids off to school or run errands. This was the reality for women in Saudi Arabia and it was the ban on women driving which drove Manal al-Sharif to help to help start a women’s right to drive campaign in 2011.
Manal was filmed driving a car as part of the campaign. In May 2011, she was detained and released but was arrested again the following day. Her arrest helped rather than defeated her cause. It showed that no matter what the cost, she was determined to stand up for what she believed.
Watch Manal share her story and try to imagine what it would be like to receive death threats because you dared to get behind the wheel of a car and have the video of this posted on Facebook.
In the video Manal declared what the purpose of the campaign was. “This is a volunteer campaign to help the girls of this country [learn to drive]. At least for times of emergency, God forbid. What if whoever is driving them gets a heart attack?” These were valid points. The other day one of my co-workers had to go leave work for a doctor’s appointment. Imagine if she were living in Saudi Arabia. She would have to call her husband to go and pick her up from work, take her to the doctor’s office. The husband would either have to wait until the appointment was over or if this wasn’t an option, he would have to go back to work and then back to the doctor’s office. What an inconvenience!
Read this personal experience of a woman who currently lives in Saudi Arabia. Not being able to drive is just one of the restrictions women face. Under Saudi law, all females must have a male guardian such a father, brother, husband or son. Girls and women are forbidden from travelling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. Depending on the guardian, women may also need permission to marry, divorce, to get an education, get a job or open a bank account.
Mandal is working to have male guardianship annulled. And I hope that she succeeds. Women are not children. They are adults, capable of making their own decisions. Women and girls should not have to get permission to be educated. Education is a privilege that everyone should have a right to enjoy. And women should have to right to employment, earning their own money and opening a bank account where they can deposit their earnings.
There as some women, however, who defend male guardianship. One such woman was Noura Abdulrahman, a female employee of the Saudi Ministry of Education. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, she declared that male guardianship provided protection and love.
In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return—they only want to be with me.
The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love. People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.
Men can love and protect women without taking away their rights to be independent, free-thinking individuals who should be treated as equals. God created women in His image and never intended them to be treated as second class citizens with no rights. Opponents of male guardianship cite cases in which women’s careers were ended by their guardians or they lost their children due to a lack of custody rights. In 2009, there was the case of a father who vetoed several of his daughter’s attempts to marry outside their tribe and punished her by sending her to a mental institution. Activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider agrees that while most Saudi men are caring, “it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.” She compares male guardianship to slavery.
The ownership of a woman is passed from one man to another. Ownership of the woman is passed from the father or the brother to another man, the husband. The woman is merely a piece of merchandise, which is passed over to someone else—her guardian … Ultimately, I think women are greatly feared. When I compare the Saudi man with other Arab men, I can say that the Saudi is the only man who could not compete with the woman. He could not compete, so what did he do with her? … The woman has capabilities. When women study, they compete with the men for jobs. All jobs are open to men. 90% of them are open to men. You do not feel any competition … If you do not face competition from the Saudi woman … you have the entire scene for yourself. All positions and jobs are reserved for you. Therefore, you are a spoiled and self-indulged man – Wajeha Al-Huwaider
Notes to Women would like to recognize Manal, a fearless woman who is continuing to fight for the rights of Saudi women. She remains an active critic of the Saudi government. She started a Twitter campaign called “Faraj” to release Saudi, Filipino and Indonesian women prisoners in the Dammam women’s prison who “are locked up just because they owe a small sum of money but cannot afford to pay the debt”. She tweeted about the lack of elections for the Shura Council, and the murder of Lama al-Ghamdi. Her work has been recognized by Foreign Policy, Time, and the Oslo Freedom Forum. Hers is a voice that refuses to be silenced until there is change.
Today, let us stand with Manal and the women of Saudi Arabia. Let us take action. Let us raise our voices and call for change. And let us be thankful that we live in countries where we have access to education, employment, our own bank accounts and have a say in matters that concern us.
We won’t stop until the first Saudi license is issued to a woman.
When women break that taboo and they’re not afraid to drive that car by herself – that’s it. Now she has the guts to speak up for herself and take action.
Women tell me they are different since 21 May – the day I was arrested – it’s a positive change, they believe now.