Saudi women launch a peaceful revolution

Women in Saudi Arabia cannot vote or drive a car, and must get a man’s permission before they marry, travel, get a job or go to university. Now some are fighting back.

It started with one or two. By today the protestors will number about 50. These are the peaceful rebels of Saudi Arabia who have decided enough is enough and that they will risk prison and beatings to defend their basic rights.

They are all women.

And their chosen form of defiance is simply to drive a car to the supermarket.

Compared to the democratic uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria it hardly registers as front-page news. But ultimately there are many who believe that the women’s revolution could be just as significant.

Saudi Arabia, which sits on over 25% of the world’s oil reserves, is a strict Islamic country and home to the Muslim shrine of Mecca. It is the only country in the world to ban women from driving.

Supporters of the ban say it is part of a wider set of social rules that protect women.

But via Facebook and Twitter, a protest movement is emerging. Emboldened by uprisings across the Middle East and Arab world, women are saying the ban should be lifted and are taking action. One well-known Saudi woman protestor, Manal al-Sharaf, has posted a YouTube video advising Saudi women with international driving licences to begin driving their own cars rather than letting a male driver do it for them.

So far nearly 50 women have driven cars as part of the campaign and many of them have posted videos online of their excursions – some just to the supermarket.

The response of the authorities has been confusing. After her drive, Manal al-Sharif was arrested and accused of ‘besmirching the kingdom’s reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion’. However, she was soon released after promising not to repeat her protest. Saudi officials claim this is not a legal or religious issue. In 2005 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah said that women driving is a social issue; that the ban existed because the people wanted it.

Others believe that if you allow the women to win their campaign it is the thin end of the wedge. Other groups will start demanding change and it could lead to chaos and civil war. For them, change, when it comes, must come from the King as it always has in the past. Democracy, they say, is deeply flawed and a system that they neither value nor envy.

Civil war

Saudi Arabia is the most powerful and by far the biggest country in the Middle East. Its stability is hugely important to the world.

Many believe that unless its ruling family finds a way to modernise society and allow more freedoms, there is a danger of massive social upheaval in the near future. For them, it is better to give way on issues like the driving ban and defend more important laws.

You Decide

  1. Are western ideas of personal freedom right in every country?
  2. Is a man offering his seat to a woman on the bus sexist?

Activities

  1. Come up with some slogans for or against women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia. They must be catchy, punchy, perhaps using comedy, rhyme or pun to make the point.
  2. Reflect on your experience of religion and on how you see it working in the world. (See 'Become an expert') And then write a piece called: 'Is religion ever right to say "No"?'

Some People Say...

“Western values are not always best for other countries.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Have there been protests before?
There was a protest back in 1990, when 47 women were arrested for driving. But women drive freely in rural areas without legal harassment.
It sounds like a very restrictive state.
It’s different from the west. There’s strict segregation of the sexes outside the family home. Women cannot vote or be elected to high political positions and shops close five times a day for prayers.
Do all women want change?
No. Journalist Maha Akeel often criticises her country’s customs. But she also thinks Westerners don’t understand. ‘Look, we are not asking for women’s rights according to Western values or lifestyles. We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models.’

Word Watch

Saudi Arabia
Named after the ruling Al Saud family, it is an oil rich kingdom bordering Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Iraq. Conservative Islamic state but has political links with the US.

Mecca
The home town of the prophet Mohammed. It is the holiest site in Islam and millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage there each year.
King Abdullah
Came to the Saudi throne in 2005; one of the world's wealthiest royals.

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