Saudi women in the driver's seat
A Saudi woman gets out of a car after being given a ride by her driver in Riyadh on May 26, 2011 as a campaign was launched on Facebook calling for men to beat Saudi women who drive their cars in a planned protest on June 17 against the ultra-conservative kingdom's ban on women taking the wheel.
June 15th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Saudi women in the driver's seat

Editor's Note: Isobel Coleman is the author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet and the blog Democracy in Development. This post comes from that blog.  Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

By Isobel Coleman

Last month, women activists in Saudi Arabia launched the Women2Drive campaign on Facebook, calling on Saudi women with international or foreign drivers’ licenses to get behind the wheel of a car on June 17 and demand the right to drive.

Saudi Arabia has the distinction of being the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Indeed, in a region where women’s rights lag in many respects, Saudi Arabia stands out as the most oppressive place.

According to a 2010 Freedom House study, Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia came in last on almost every measure of political, civil, economic, and legal rights for women.

While it is unlikely that the protest drive on June 17 will fundamentally alter the situation for Saudi women, it does represent a watershed moment.

This is the largest organized protest by Saudi women and so far, the leaders of the campaign have refused to back down even in the face of harsh government repression.

One of the organizers, Manal al-Sharif, has already spent more than a week in jail for her crime of driving publicly last month.

Saudi authorities have made it clear that they will not tolerate this flagrant disobedience on the part of women, vowing to arrest any who dare to drive on Friday. The women have taken their cause to the global media, giving numerous interviews on international television and sending an open letter both to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and High Representative Catherine Ashton of the European Union asking for their support. Tens of thousands of people around the world have signed the letters.

Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it has no interest in allowing the winds of change blowing across the Middle East to reach its desert shores. It has quickly and decisively put down any signs of internal unrest while using its vast resources to prop up the status quo in the other Arab monarchies, from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain.

Its harsh reaction to the Women2Drive campaign is as much, if not more, against the women’s civil disobedience, and their threatening use of social media to organize, as it is against the act of driving. The government rightly sees this as the thin edge of a wedge that could crack open Saudi Arabia’s medieval system in ways that could spin out of control.

Read: Isobel Coleman on inside Iran's Green Movement.

Yet Saudi rulers are naïve to think that they can keep women in perpetual servitude and sustain their system of gender apartheid in the 21st century.

More and more Saudi women, who now make up the majority of college graduates in the kingdom, understand that the restrictions on their lives, justified in the name of religion, are not for the most part based on Islam.

After all, the Quran says nothing about a woman not being allowed to drive. Saudi women are increasingly aware that Muslim women in other Gulf countries have more rights than they do and they are asking why. I hope many of them find the courage to defy the authorities and take to the streets on Friday. And I hope Secretary Clinton issues a strong statement of support for these brave women asking for nothing more than a bit of freedom.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Isobel Coleman. For more, visit her blog Democracy in Development at CFR.org.

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Topics: Saudi Arabia • Women

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    It will be a matter of time that women in Saudi Arabia achieve gender equality and equal rights. It is inconceivable that this country is the only one in the world that bans women behind the wheels. Pakistan is also another religious and conservative country. Yet it had accepted a third gender and enables transvestites to achieve legal status. It's absolutely flabbergasting!

    June 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
    • bjhayes

      I wasn't that long ago here in the states that woman couldn't vote or hold public office. I am a supporter for human rights and feel that it doesn't matter what your gender. We are human and there for should have equal rights. Sadly this isn't the case due to political and social reasons and its because of these reasons that we have clashes around the world. I believe that reason can solve most of our problems but a dose of understanding and respect is also in order. But human nature has shown us time and time again that its drawn to holding on to old beliefs and ideals and is unable to move forward. The hope I have and see is a world as flawed as it is can see past their differences and just respect each other for who and what they are. I feel that labels are the most damaging thing we as humans can do to ourselves because it shows the world that we are unable to see and understand and respect each other views or beliefs. It causes hate strife and discontent. furthermore it causes us to blame each other for our problems.

      June 16, 2011 at 9:09 am | Reply
  2. Wasabiwahabi

    No, it was almost a century ago, a long time indeed, since 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, women received had the right to vote.Women protested and some were jailed, but none, to my knowledge, was stoned to death in public, or honor killed by a man.

    June 16, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  3. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Take off that towel. You towel heads are really morons.

    June 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Reply
    • Sarah in Texas

      You sound like a pretty serious moron to me.

      June 17, 2011 at 11:00 am | Reply
  4. FuzzyThinker

    "And I hope Secretary Clinton issues a strong statement of support for these brave women asking for nothing more than a bit of freedom."

    Who are you trying to convince? Those in power or the rest of us.
    You are NOT asking for just one bit of freedom.

    You want as much as you can get and still demand more.
    Typical woman talk.

    Good luck. Wish you well. Try to be honest when asking for support.

    June 16, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Reply
    • Wasabiwahabi

      Too much caffeine tonight, Fuzzy?

      June 17, 2011 at 12:38 am | Reply
    • Sarah in Texas

      No one should have to ask for any "bit" of freedom; it should be a right to everyone! Fuzzy Thinker describes you well!

      June 17, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
  5. EmmaTheGrey

    Bring it, Saudi sisters! Do us proud! Yalla!

    June 17, 2011 at 3:56 am | Reply
  6. dirali

    When will all the dumb men realize that, after all, they are born to women – who are they to oppress and harass their life source??

    June 17, 2011 at 4:41 am | Reply
    • TowelHeadsAreMorons

      As soon as they quit teaching Islame to boys.

      June 17, 2011 at 9:17 am | Reply
  7. John Sharp

    If we replaced the word woman with black person everyone in the world would be boycotting this country. Subjugating the women and providing them with rights as you or your silly religion sees fit is wrong.
    I lived in Saudi Arabia and this area of the world's perception of women is so primitive. They use religion as a weapon to keep women subject to their decisions and totally powerless.
    Women have a right as members of the human race to every right afforded a man.
    The fact that we don't have the moral courage to do the right thing and discontinue our relationship with this country is sad.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply

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