Saudi Women find their ‘Online Voice’
Sarah Zakzouk reflects upon the changing status of women in Saudi Arabia, and the ways in which new technologies are helping them fight for equal rights.
Following in the footsteps of the revolutionaries calling for change across the Middle East, women in Saudi Arabia are using the online medium of social networking sites to strengthen their political voices. The ‘Women2Drive’ campaign, initiated by women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif has generated a massive online following, having been launched on social media sites Facebook and Twitter. The campaign called for women to stand up to the law and get into the driving seat on June 17th 2011. Portraying videos of al-Sharif driving a car, the original Facebook page was swiftly deleted by authorities, but a new page was launched by supporters who contributed to the cause in a bid to keep the initiative going. Since releasing a video of her driving a car in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif has been arrested, detained, re-arrested and released on bail, on the condition that she does not drive and does not speak to the media regarding the campaign.
1990 saw a similar uprising in Riyadh, with dozens of women getting behind the wheels of cars in protest of the law. This resulted however, in a one day imprisonment, the confiscation of their passports, and some of the women losing their jobs. But the social scene is changing; these women are resolute in their aim and are using the strength of their online voice, their online presence to change the driving laws in Saudi Arabia. Facebook and Twitter are increasing peoples’ accessibility to information on such a huge scale, that previously inconceivable possibilities for political expression and organisation are becoming imaginable. The exact consequences of this expansion of political awareness are yet to become clear but it is evident that the internet is providing opportunities to make a change. But will online voices be heard? And will it make a difference? Friday 17th June 2011 saw a handful of women driving in Saudi Arabia, but it was certainly not a matter of historic change unfolding before our eyes. Police were told to turn a blind eye that day; this lack of acknowledgement simply highlighting the fact that they do not intend to listen. And to what? It turns out that this 'online voice' was merely a facade; there was no power of assertion behind it for many of the so-called supporters of the campaign who did not show their faces on the day – ultimately they were just empty words lost in the cyber ether.
Nevertheless, there have been some highly significant changes in Saudi Arabia in recent months. From September 2011 women in Saudi Arabia were entitled to vote and run in municipal elections. It is going to be a very gradual process of liberalisation in Saudi Arabia, and I don't expect Saudi women to succeed in their bid for equal rights any time soon, but this is a positive start and hopefully the beginning of many more changes that will see women in Saudi Arabia gain more freedom and independence. The new term of the Shura council (the formal advisory body to the king) saw King Abdullah announce the move to allow women the vote. Allowing women to join the Shura council could lead to reforms that will favour the female representative voice in the country. As a former resident of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this is a change that excites me, to see how much the country has grown, and the potential it has to adapt and modernise its traditional ways of thinking.
Following on from this, it appears that I may have become momentarily caught up in my excitement over the potential liberalisation of Saudi legislation, as recent news will remind us of the Saudi mindset that continues to have a strong hold over society, particularly the women in that society. Ironically, the idea behind disallowing women to drive is to restrict their exposure to men. However, this has resulted in the common ‘driver culture’ in Saudi Arabia which simply means that women sit in a car day and night with a male driver, and thus have a great deal of exposure to men outside of the family unit. It seems to utterly oppose the reasoning behind the ban.
A report presented to the Shura council by Saudi academic Kamal Subhi relayed graphic warnings of the consequences of allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia. It is claimed that this will lead to an increase in divorce, prostitution, pornography and homosexuality. A generally depraved, corrupt manner is predicted to descend upon the country and its female inhabitants, simply by allowing women the freedom to drive themselves from A to B at their own leisure. This has led to a profound protest from legions of Saudi women, both online and off, who felt that these were ridiculous and totally unjustifiable infringements upon their rights. This is simply another example of the willful backwardness of the Saudi justice system.
It is assumed that the laws are a direct reflection of the Islamic influence upon the country, but this is not so. Muslim societies around the world are far more liberal with fairer justice systems; so why does Saudi Arabia remain so rigid in its ways? It is hard to say, and it is up to the natives of the country to make these changes happen. It does not make sense to impose Western rules and standards upon this way of living, but these simple allowances are not Western ways – they are basic human rights. Gender segregation is so commonplace in Saudi Arabia that it is simply the norm. But these are educated women who deserve their independence and a ‘modern’ way of living. To claim that women will simply fall into prostitution and immoral degenerate behaviour because they are handed a set of car keys is simply an insult to the women and to their intelligence. This is an attitude that is not only excruciatingly backward, but is dangerous and women in Saudi Arabia will not rest until their voices are heard and their rights to basic freedom granted. Amidst the landscape of the Arab Spring this will remain an issue and women will push for these changes to be made as they watch the people of neighbouring Arab countries fighting for their rights and putting their lives at risk to achieve what is deserved. In the current climate we are seeing the blurring of boundaries on so many levels – wealth brackets have broken down in Egypt to witness the coming together of the Egyptian people, rich and poor, to fight for their beliefs and crush Hosni Mubarak’s totalitarian dictatorship. Similarly in Saudi Arabia, women are trying to weaken the gender barriers that keep them suppressed as second rate citizens to their male counterparts. These barriers have been weakened in recent years, but can they be broken?