September 9, 2011

Saudi Women Rights [Denied]

Our frustrations as women emanate from decades of patriarchal ideology embedded in societies around the world. Perhaps this oppression goes back in historic times when women have been subjected to racism and brutal repression. Islam came to honour women and help them reclaim their God-given rights of freedom for life and for choice. Centuries later, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the ‘so called’ heart of Islam, women are still challenged by sexism. Witnessing women being unjustly treated by the society is heartbreaking, and living this unjust treatment is indeed exhausting as it is infuriating. 

In a nutshell, Saudi women are dependent on their male counterparts in just about everything. From travelling, to issuing/renewing official papers, to getting admitted to university/hospitals for education/treatment, to simply moving around. A male guardianship must accompany a Saudi woman throughout her life. Starting with her father, then husband, and if these two seize to exist, it is the closer male family member, be it a brother or a distant uncle. Even if a mother reaches the age of 50, she is still subjected to the same humiliation of waiting to be granted permission, sometimes from her 17 year old son, in the case of the death of her husband. Permission must be granted for pleasure or for business, for crisis or for daily routine. Female members of the society are strangled by laws and regulations. 

Yet, even as Saudi Arabia progresses and assumes political roles for citizens, [facade of] votes for municipal election, women are excluded completely. Decision-making and policymaking in the country is exclusive to male members of the society. Women constitute more than 50% of the population, and they are responsible for the other half, as mothers, as sisters, as teachers, as doctors and as daughters. They suffer from lack of proper policies and yet they are prohibited from participation. They suffer being part of a society that rejects their participation. They are named nationals and citizens, yet they lack the full rights of citizenship and nationality. 

This subject has been written and rewritten many times. I have probably read about Saudi women in international media written by westerners more so than I have read Saudi women speak out for themselves. I do admit that using international media has at times helped advance our cause but at many other times it has also caused much more local resistance to anything that is western, and therefore, it may has slowed down the progress of our cause if not stagnated it. 

Also, because such a subject for the West is attractive and exotic, there is a certain cliche that often develops around how international media tackles these issues written about Saudi women, which makes it unwelcomed locally, sometimes even by supporters of the cause.

The issue of Saudi women driving has perhaps gained unprecedented media outbreak in the aftermath of the Saudi Women2Drive campaigner Ms. Manal Al Sharif detention for over a week. Her release has instigated a resistance to the whole issue by religious hardliners and some by Saudi members. Equally, it has also given some Saudi women and other supporters of the cause a reason to follow suit and continue on the path that was paved by Ms. Najla Hariri, Ms. Manal Al Sharif and other Saudi women drivers, before and after the event. 

It is not just about driving a car, it is a denied choice, and a denied right for moving around. The [car] driving issue is a symbol for women's right to 'drive' change in Saudi Arabia. It is a first step from a series of rights that remain deprived and denied. Therefore, the driving issue is not to be belittled or ignored because it is the key for enabling women to fully and equally contribute to the development of our country.

The Women2Drive Campaign is gaining more social and media support and also campaign members, complemented by the establishment of Women2Drive Academy to facilitate teaching women amongst themselves how to drive across the Kingdom. These are some of many attempts to continue 'testing the water' of the general public, more specifically after every major interview or news headlines with regards to Saudi women driving with buoyant hopes for pushing further the women driving case. 

Decades of oppression has created a population that is accustomed to gender disparity and a lack of an institution or a legitimate infrastructure to protect or proclaim women rights. Such social inertia which prolongs this status quo could be seen in the adaptation to the system, so much that it becomes the norm and spreading this false claim that these rules (or lack of it, thereof) are for the protection and honouring of women. 

Our generation of Saudi women are born activists and are determined to change the fate of their fellow Saudi women and follow the pioneers that paved the way for Saudi women liberation and proclamation of God-given rights. Here’s to Saudi women to drive change across the kingdom and complement their fellow counterparts to rise as a progressive nation. 

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