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Women in Saudi Arabia demand their freedom and dignity

Created 17/06/2011 - 15:32
 
The unexpected visibility and assertiveness of women has helped propel what has become known as the Arab spring. Major changes have occurred in the minds and lives of women, helping them break the shackles of the past and demand their freedom and dignity.

Since January 2011, images of millions of women demonstrating alongside men have been beamed around the world. One saw women from all walks of life marching for a better future for themselves and their countries. They appeared prominently - eloquent and outspoken, chanting calls for democratic change. They walked, bused, telephoned, and tweeted, motivated partly by a desire for their own empowerment.

The contrast between this dynamic space for open protest and Saudi Arabia could hardly be starker. Saudi women find themselves living in a petrified system. Faces of the royal family are seen everywhere; the faces of women are shrouded, forcibly hidden.

Nowhere else in the world is modernity experienced as such a problem. Skyscrapers rise out of the desert, yet women are not permitted to share elevators with men. Nor are they allowed to walk in the streets, drive cars, or leave the country without the permission of a male guardian.

Fatima, a young woman from Mecca, sent me an e-mail at the height of the Egyptian revolution: "Forget about the cries for freedom; I can't even give birth without being accompanied to hospital by a mihrim," or male guardian. She went on, "And the [religious police] have been given the right to humiliate us in public." Indeed, the religious police saw their broad powers further enhanced by King Abdullah in March, after they helped suppress protests in the kingdom.



Revolutionary drive

Yet globalization knows no limits, not even those set by the guardians of Islamic probity. Nine-year-old Saudi girls chat online, disregarding clerical fatwas that forbid them Internet access without male supervision. Many women remain secretly glued to satellite television, watching their peers in the public squares of Egypt or Yemen, beyond their reach but not their imagination.
Last month, a brave woman named Manal al-Sharif broke the silence and apathy, daring to defy the ban on women's driving. For the next week, she sat in a Saudi prison. But within two days of her detention, 500,000 people had watched the YouTube video of her excursion. Thousands of Saudi women, frustrated and humiliated by the ban, have vowed to stage a "driving day" today.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women to drive. The system of confinement that the ban represents is justified neither by Islamic texts nor by the nature of the diverse society that the Al Saud and their Wahhabi Muslim partners rule. Indeed, it is far removed even from the rest of the Arab world - which has become glaringly obvious in the context of massive social upheaval almost everywhere else in the region.


Institutional misogyny

Enforced segregation is mirrored in every aspect of Saudi life. Religious education constitutes up to 50 percent of the curriculum. As a result, Wahhabi dogma penetrates every home in the country. Textbooks - pink for girls, blue for boys, each with different contents - emphasize the rules prescribed by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, an 18th-century cleric and the founder of Wahhabism.
The Saudi judicial system is one of the most formidable obstacles to women's aspirations, relying on Islamic interpretations that protect a patriarchal system. Indeed, not only do judges' decisions support the system, but patriarchy has become the driving force of the law.

Thus, Saudi women are barred from the legal profession on the basis of a Wahhabi stricture that "a woman is lacking in mind and religion." In other words, the rule of law in Saudi Arabia is the rule of misogyny - the comprehensive legal exclusion of women from the public sphere.

Saudi rulers have announced that demonstrations are haram - sins punishable by jail and flogging. Now some clerics have pronounced driving by women to be foreign-inspired haram, punishable in the same way.

Despite such threats, thousands of Saudi women joined the "We are all Manal al-Sharif" page on Facebook, and countless other videos of women driving have appeared on YouTube since her arrest. Like Manal, they have been detained, and the government appears determined to prosecute them. But they are nonetheless eloquently demanding an end to women's dependency.

Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a bus helped spark the American civil rights movement. We shall soon find out whether Manal al-Sharif's defiance of the Saudi regime's driving ban produces a similar effect.



Mai Yamani is the author, most recently, of "Cradle of Islam." This was distributed by Project Syndicate.

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