It almost certainly won’t match the masses that filled civic squares in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen. A protest movement that’s supposed to start tomorrow in Saudi Arabia seems to be finding its inspiration from the Arab Spring. It is rooted in a fight to end the ban on women driving but there are much bigger issues at stake.
She’s been labeled Saudi Arabia’s Rosa Parks. She’s also been condemned as a sinner who deserves to be flogged. She is Manal al-Sharif and she wants the right to drive.
A few weeks ago, al-Sharif posted a video on Youtube showing her doing just that: driving in the city al-Khobar in the eastern part of the country.
Her friend Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed the journey from the passenger seat.
“It went very well. We drove for about an hour in Al-Khobar streets and people were looking at us surprised but they didn’t really bother us, they didn’t try to follow us or anything,” al-Huwaider said.
Al- Sharif tried again two days later, driving in the company of her brother. The police spotted her, arrested her and released her the same day. But they came back the next day, after her online campaign calling on Saudi women to start driving on June 17th went viral.
Al-Sharif was held for nine days. She no longer speaks publicly about driving. Her friend, Al-Huwaider does though and she says the campaign is about more than being able to drive. “I want things to get better for women. I want life to be easier for us, to feel that we belong to this country,” al-Huwaider said.
Eman al-Nafjan, who writes a blog from Riyadh, agrees that in the ultraconservative kingdom, allowing women behind the wheel is a revolutionary idea.
“If women drive it’s the point of no return,” said al-Nafjan. “Once women are allowed to drive we are no longer the society we once were.; that women finally have a voice, that they’re not dominated by men, they are not controled by men.”
If the newly passionate debate about driving is being fuelled by uprisings in other Arab and north African nations, it only underscores the dramatic differences between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. Madawi al-Rasheed has studied Saudi society for years. Saudi herself, she lives in London and teaches at King’s College.
“In a way, when Arabs are discussing their political rights the future of their constitutions like what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia we find that Saudi debate is so backward.
When Arab women have participated in revolutions, in real change they have been very active, Saudi women are marginalized,” al-Rasheed said.
Al-Rasheed admires the courage of the small number of women activists in Saudi Arabia and she understands why they want to drive., but she says what’s really needed are fundamental political reforms that would limit the king’s absolute power. Al-Rasheed believes that won’t happen unless women gather together in larger numbers.
“If you have a women’s movement that calls for rights beyond driving, beyond selling lingerie in shops, then women are going to have rights that are not going to be reversed. And this is the only say I can see to move forward.,” she said.
Inside the country though, Eman al-Nafjan says progress has to happen step by step.
“If it’s recognized that I can drive then I can ask for other things as well and I can speak up about other issues,” al-Nafjan said.
Some women have taken up the cause in recent days. Six women were arrested in Riyadh last week for driving on an empty street. But neither al-Nafjan or Wajeha al-Huwaider believe many other women will take to their cars in Saudi cities tomorrow, possibly out of fear of arrest and punishment.
Still, they both expect the king will end the driving ban soon. Professor al-Rasheed thinks they are far too optimistic to expect royal largesse soon.
“If the Saudi population is going to continue to wait for “makroma” – that is a royal gift – they’re going to wait for a very long time,” al-Rasheed said.
Al-Rasheed may have a point. It’s been 20 years since a group of women lost their jobs and were ostracized for driving their cars in protest against the ban.
This time around, emboldened by the change they see in nearby nations, some women are hoping this just might be the Saudi women’s spring.