Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Driving While Female

Here's a disturbing tale from The Times which reports on the barbaric treatment meted out to a young Saudi Arabian woman, Manal al-Sharif, for daring to drive her own car and challenging the country's antiquated 'male guardian' laws.

Donald Trump is now singing Saudi Arabia's praises of course and his daughter Ivanka was in the kingdom recently talking complete claptrap about the country's progress in 'empowering women'.

Manal al-Sharif: ‘I drove in Saudi Arabia and lost my home, job and son’

Women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia but Manal al-Sharif refused to let that stop her

By Hilary Rose - The Times
Manal al-Sharif flashes the victory sign from behind the wheel - AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Manal al-Sharif is an accidental activist. She doesn’t want to be one and it has brought her nothing but trouble. Her misfortune was to be born a woman in Saudi Arabia, and there comes a point in a woman’s life when not being able to do pretty much anything without the permission of a man starts to get you down.

For al-Sharif, now 38, that moment came when she was 32. She had been to the doctors’ early one evening and was walking down the street trying to find a taxi. Men driving past jeered at her and harassed her. One man followed her for so long that, terrified, she eventually threw a rock at his car, before bursting into tears. She had a driving licence and she owned a car, but Saudi custom forbade her to drive it. She was an educated adult with a job and a child. Enough was enough.

“Why do I have to be humiliated?” she says on the phone from New York, where she’s promoting her book, Daring to Drive. “Why can’t I drive, when I have a car and a licence? Why do I have to ask colleagues to give me a ride, or my brother, or look for a driver to drive my own car?”

Manal al-Sharif

Why indeed? She had bought the car when she was married and could afford a driver. When she divorced she couldn’t. It was May 2011, and while Saudi clerics were advancing the not especially compelling argument that driving would damage women’s ovaries, the Arab spring was unfolding. Al-Sharif watched videos on social media and told a friend that she was going to organise her own day of action. She was going to film herself driving and post it on YouTube.

“He said, ‘Ooh, trouble-maker,’ ” she says, laughing. “I said, ‘No, history-maker.’ ”

As it happened they were both right. The video was viewed 700,000 times in a single day. A train of events had started that would change the lives of her whole family. Her father heard his daughter condemned in the mosque. Her brother and his family received so much harassment that they eventually left the country. As for al-Sharif herself, the secret police came for her at two o’clock in the morning and she spent a week in a cockroach-infested prison. The offence on the charge sheet read: “Driving while female.”

Al-Sharif was born in 1979 and says that her story is that of an entire generation. “We were indoctrinated. At school, 60 per cent of what we studied was religion. We were told only one side of the story of Islamic faith, the Wahhabi side. We were lied to. We wanted to be good Muslims. I was brought up to follow the rules and listen to the man. They said that covering our faces was to please God, but if you cover a woman’s face then she becomes invisible. She loses her identity. It’s got nothing to do with being devout, it’s about controlling women’s bodies. It’s about men being seen to be in charge. When a man asks his wife to cover her face, it says, ‘You belong to me.’ ”

The only non-academic subjects that girls were permitted to take were sewing, drawing and home economics. If they went to the souk, men handed out leaflets saying that wearing the veil was for their own good, that it preserved their honour and dignity. A woman’s duty was to subordinate herself utterly to her husband. She couldn’t study, travel, marry, work or get medical treatment without the consent of a male relative.

By the time al-Sharif was a teenager, she believed it. She burnt music cassettes as sinful and experimented with wearing the niqab. However, she also continued with her education, graduating from university in Jeddah with a first in computer science. She was awarded an internship at Aramco, the state-owned oil company, for which her father had to sign a consent form. At 24 she married a controlling and abusive man, and gave birth to her first son, Abdalla, now 12. She divorced his father when he was two after he beat her up savagely.

If education started her journey to becoming an activist then travel cemented it. Posted by her employer to America for a few months, she was astounded. She could open a bank account, get in a car, do anything she liked. She stopped wearing the hijab and, once back home in Saudi Arabia, wore it only at work.

“I’m proud of my face,” she writes in the book. “I will not cover it. If it bothers you, don’t look. If you are seduced by merely looking at it, that is your problem. You cannot punish me because you cannot control yourself.”

Of all the forms of oppression faced by Saudi women, why was it the driving ban that irritated her the most? “Because I believe that when women drive in my country, that will liberate them. We don’t have pedestrianised cities, there’s no proper public transportation. Driving is the key. It means that women are independent, they can leave the house, they don’t have to wait for a male guardian. Guardianship is the source of all evil when it comes to binding women. I’m 38 years old, I have two sons, I pay my own bills, but legally I’m a minor. I can’t do anything. I have to go to my father to get my passport. It’s outrageous. Once women can drive, all this evil will fall.”
I have two kids and pay my own bills, but legally I can’t do anything

She set up a Facebook page, Women2Drive, where young women who wanted to learn to drive could contact women who could teach them. On June 17, 2011 about 35 Saudi women did something radical — they got behind the wheel, something that was forbidden, although not, al-Sharif had discovered, technically illegal. She was called a whore, a traitor and a spy. Colleagues shunned her and her son was bullied. After three months of harassment from his colleagues, her brother moved his family to Kuwait. The online comments beneath the YouTube videos were so offensive that she had to disable them.

Her girlfriends, meanwhile, told her she was creating a scandal and shaming her countrymen. They warned her not to write her book. They were scared. She may be a rebel to her own generation, she argues, but to millennials she’s one of them. “They talk the same as me. Finally I don’t feel like I’m ostracised. How long do we have to shush each other?”

She dismisses claims by the ruling royal family that Saudi society is too conservative to accept women driving as “rubbish . . . nonsense” and rails against the hypocrisy of western governments in not doing more. In April, she supects, like many observers, that the UK was one of the countries that voted for Saudi Arabia to become a member of the UN commission on women’s rights. The Foreign Office refuses to confirm or deny this, but her outrage is palpable.

“We were like, ‘What? A country that is proud to have women’s rights, that has a woman prime minister, would vote for Saudi Arabia to join this commission?’ It happened exactly seven days after one of our prominent activists had been jailed for disturbing the public order. That was a stab in the neck for me. If you won’t put some pressure on your ally for women to drive, at least don’t support them and put them in such powerful positions.”
She was thrilled when the Saudi Olympic team were told that they had to include female athletes at the London 2012 games

She is equally disdainful of Ivanka Trump, who recently said how encouraged she was by the advancement of women’s rights in the kingdom. The west, al-Sharif argues, has an obligation to use its liberties and freedoms to advance Saudi women’s liberty by applying more diplomatic pressure. She was thrilled when the Saudi Olympic team were told that they had to include female athletes if they wanted to compete at the London 2012 games. “That was huge. Historic. We need more things like that.”

Ultimately, though, while Saudi women may not attain equality in her lifetime, she thinks it will happen, but that change can only come from within. “You cannot ask for your rights if you don’t believe you have rights. Women need to believe that they deserve to be treated equally and that they deserve to be full citizens in their own country.”

Simple economics are on her side. The collapse in the price of oil and the conflict with Yemen has meant that Saudi Arabia is no longer quite as wealthy as it was. The state oil company is due to be floated next year, and al-Sharif thinks the government may make concessions to avoid any negative headlines. She is jubilant at talk of the government having to levy taxes for the first time.

“Only 11 per cent of women work today. You cannot have that if you want people to pay taxes, you need them to go to work and be productive. There are all these women who are highly educated with no jobs, because they don’t want men and women to mix in the workplace, and they don’t want women to drive. That’s a luxury they can’t afford any more.”

Al-Sharif’s struggle has cost her her job, her country and her son. When she was invited to talk about her struggle at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Aramco forbade her to go, so she resigned. When she wanted to remarry, to a Brazilian man she met at Aramco, the government refused her permission. She married in Dubai, at which point she automatically lost custody of Abdalla. He now lives with his paternal grandmother, while al-Sharif has moved for her husband’s work to Sydney, Australia. She sees Abdalla no more than two or three times a year, and he has never met his half-brother, who is two. The Saudi authorities won’t allow her to take her younger son into the country or her older son out.

“I want to go back to Saudi Arabia, of course I do. I want my children to be together. I thought I’d get government approval for my marriage in a few months and I’d be back, but it’s now been five years. That’s being an activist in my country. Welcome to my life. Welcome to Saudi Arabia.”

Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif is published by Simon and Schuster on June 13, £16.99

'Aslef of Arabia' (29/12/11)

A number of readers have been in touch to ask where the 'We the Women' picture came from - to accompany the post about women drivers - dated 27 December 2011.

Well  it comes from people campaigning in Saudi Arabia - against the ban on women driving cars and other motor vehicles - public or private.

According to the Saudi authorities it's against Islamic teaching that women should drive cars - never mind trains - it's against the law of the land.

Any women caught doing so - by the religious police - are liable to be severely punished.

But all hope is not lost - because people are fighting back - with courage, wit and humour.

By arguing that it's ridiculous and even anti-Islamic - to suggest that God somehow proclaimed that women can't drive.

'We the Women' is their campaign slogan.

And the campaigners think of all kinds of ways to illustrate how crazy it is - to ordain that women can use washing machines or mobile phone or computers - but not cars (or trains for that matter).

Some women have taken to dressing up in male clothes and wearing false moustaches - to ridicule the authorities - but as the law stand women still need a man to drive them around.

Apparently a father, brother, son - or just about any old male relative will do - which seems bizarre.

Now to look at the statistics on the number of women train drivers in this country - or the number of women members in Aslef - you'd be forgiven for thinking that God had made a similar proclamation in the UK.

But thankfully no one believes that kind of nonsense in this country.

So maybe 'We the Women' will catch on in the UK - maybe even deep in the bowels of the still male dominated parts of the UK trade union movement. 

I for one hope so - anyway.


Mad Mufti (06/12/13)

Mufti and the Monarch
The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has proclaimed that the ban on women driving in this repressive  Islamic state protects society from “evil”.

What a plonker! - you have to say - while wondering why women are able to work other modern inventions such as washing machines without any of these men in beards batting an eyelid.

Anyway, the grand mufti - who is also known as - Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Al Shaikh- said in recent a speech delivered that giving women the right to drive should not be “one of society’s major concerns”.

Well, of course not - because where would it lead - the next thing you know women would be demanding to be able to go out by themselves, unescorted by a male relative, choose whom to marry, if an when to have children - and what kind of education or career to pursue.

The mufti's comments came as women activists were assured by the Shura Council - and advisory body to the all powerful King - was still reassessing the controversial Saudi ban on women drivers.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving - and this backward attitude has drawn condemnation from the international community.

Saudi Arabia's all-appointed consultative Shura Council is an attempt by the monarchy to substitute for and elected parliament - the council makes recommendations to the government, but the King remains the only and absolute legislator.

At least 16 women were stopped by police during a driving protest day last month and were fined and forced - along with their male guardians - to promise to obey the kingdom’s laws.

In addition to the driving ban, Saudi women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe and need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.

I wonder if the grand mufti can really in touch with his feminine side - especially as a recent scientific study has declared women to be better and safer drivers than men?