Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world to ban women from driving. Many people have commented about this policy. The country is largely paternalistic and men are considered superior to women. Women cannot go anywhere unaccompanied. However, although some people have complained about the country’s policies, they are not in a position to effect the necessary changes. Only the citizens can change their country’s restrictive laws. This has compelled some people to protest the ban on driving. Other women have dared to drive in public, and this has had repercussions. They have faced arrest and the wrath of some of the members of the society. However, those women who continue fighting for their rights have not given up. For years, they have dared others to join them in their fight. They are taking advantage of the available technology to advance their cause. This has given them the exposure they need, and it has made more people aware of their course.
According to Clay Shirky, who is an American writer and consultant on the impact of internet technology, the changing communication landscape has given people the chance to get more information. It has increased the opportunities that people have to engage in public speech and participate in collective action (29). This is certainly true for women in Saudi Arabia who protest the driving ban. The women are using different communication technologies to make their grievances. They are using YouTube to post videos where others can see them driving. Some women have done this, and this has encouraged others to follow their steps. In the videos, the veiled women can be seen driving around different landmarks in Jeddah and occasionally pausing to talk to the camera. In one instance, a woman reverses her car from her garage driveway and once she is on the street, she nervously looks out for the sign of any kind of police presence. She then joins a major intersection and accelerates to avoid detection, waving a thumbs-up sign in the process. Her fear of being caught is visible as well as the delight she displays by enjoying the ride (Chapell 1). Importantly, most of them avoid crowded streets and their windowpanes are not drawn down to signify their knowledge that they are breaking the law. However, their defiance is also detectable and whenever they reach their destinations without any incidents, they are often triumphant. They are also using different social media platforms to make the government aware of their sentiments regarding the discriminatory and restrictive laws.
Shirky notes that, despite the mentioned usefulness of the social media, its potential depends on support from the civil society and the public sphere (30). Without support from the public, people will not be able to use social media effectively to realize their goals. Many of the people in Saudi Arabia who oppose the idea of women driving are men. However, some women are also against the idea. Others are afraid of joining the protest because they fear the repercussions although “…there is an enhanced ability of taking collective action” (Shirky, 30). This has slowed down any signs of change. Women have been slow to realize the changes they have been waiting for because most of the people do not join the protests. Women first began protesting against the ban in 1990. Forty-seven women were arrested at the time (Shirky 29). From then, the women arranged and took part in another protest, in 2011. Most of the time, they are released after appending their signatures on pledges that they would not repeat the offence. There was a large gap, showing that many people were content with the situation. The recent protest happened in 2013. However, the number of women who participated in the process did not increase. The absence of civil societies with the same ideals makes it harder for the few select individuals to effect any changes in their country. Few civil society groups are willing to join the women to help them fight for their cause. This increases the burden that the women have to bear and minimizes the pressure on the government to repeal these draconian laws.
Shirky observes that protestors will use any means they have to make other people aware of their views and coordinate their actions. Today, this includes the use of such tools such as mobile phones and online technologies. Due to the ongoing crackdown on websites that advance the cause of women driving in Saudi Arabia by the regime, even e-mails have become more useful in rallying people. In Saudi Arabia, both women and men have formed different online petitions, aimed at encouraging women to drive and changing the government laws. For example, the online petition by Kristina Chew has so far generated 3,677 signatures from people across the globe. In the petition, she makes the case for the ban citing that women are forced to hire drivers or their male relatives to enable them to commute. However, she highlights the risks involved with the prohibition such as the loss of lives due to illness of a driver in which women are passengers. In addition, she states that this law strips women of their dignity and makes them dependent on men hence they are not free in their own country.
As part of the reactions to the petition, some respondents are demanding
equality and claiming to be signing up in solidarity with the Saudi women. Similarly, there is an online Amnesty International petition that equally advocates for women to be allowed to drive themselves throughout the kingdom. Some of the people use their blogs while others use twitter and Facebook. Dr. Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen Hammad maintains one such active blog. In it, she chronicles the history of the fight for women’s rights worldwide and draws a parallel with the need for intervention in Saudi Arabia. Aptly titled “These Shackles must be removed”, she reveals that there are no shariah laws that forbid women from driving, women have been known through research to cause fewer accidents than men, the ban is illegal and it exposes them to acts such as rape (Madina 1). She further demand s for the removal of the ban insisting that all citizens have a right of movement and the Shoura Council should stand up for the human rights of Saudi women. As a result, the traffic on her blog is very high as people voice their opinions and this offers an insight of the extent of the problem to the outside world.
Those who participate in the protests use their mobile phones and cameras to record videos of them driving. They then post videos to the internet where others can see them. For example, one such video received 654 views within hours of it being uploaded. The video includes three women who huddle into an SUV and then hit the road. Their plan is to take turns at the wheel and all the while they talk to the camera on the need for Saudi authorities to dignify the female gender. They even spot a policeman leaning on a wall whose backdrop is a photo of King Abdullah and they unleash criticism of his regime. They are bitter with the administrations restrictions on the movement of women particularly the decree that women need to seek for permission from their husbands or male guardians before going anywhere. In light of this, authoritarian regimes and governments are afraid when people are able to coordinate towards a common cause and purpose, and they will try to restrict any form of communication (32).
Media is an important tool that makes citizens aware of the events that are happening in a country. It plays an essential role in driving social change as it strengthens the public. Through the media, populations get the chance to discuss and debate over diverse issues on the same platform (Shirky 34). Modern media have given people a chance to do this. The natives in Saudi Arabia who are supporting changes in legislation may not get a chance to air their opinions in state controlled media, such as television and newspapers. However, the internet has given them a platform where they can discuss many diverse issues that are affecting them. By going online, they have been able to engage with members of other Arab countries who are facing similar discriminatory challenges in their own nations. These platforms offer them a chance to exchange ideas as well as lend moral support to their respective causes. It also makes them have a mouthpiece with which citizens of other countries can track developments within dictatorial countries that try to curtail the freedom of speech. In addition, social media has facilitated the building of lasting relationships both at a personal level and intellectually. In this way, many people have been enlightened and they have proceeded to apply that knowledge in other aspects of their normal lives.
Thus, Saudi women managed to capitalize on the power and influence of such forums to agitate for more pressure to be applied to their government by foreigners in a bid to reverse the retrogressive ban on driving. In 2011, women and some males called for reforms and they created a website where people could sign their petition. The purpose of the petition was to enable people to get their voices heard. They wanted the government to listen to them as they urged people to reconsider their laws. The type of laws that they wanted to change were the ones that were not controversial. Instead, they settled on gender sensitive ones as those could easily be supported by many people. However, they made it clear that the venture was risky and the outcome was unpredictable but they were categorical that they would not back down. Whereas this made the participants feel encouraged, it caused ripples within the government since the protestors were viewed as being anti-nationalist. The only response that was mooted was the isolation and arrests of its leaders to deter their followers from continuing with these policies. Even some international civil society groups were put under surveillance with threats of their disbandment being floated to intimidate them from lending their support on the launch of the women driving exercise nationally.
Cultures are different, and the public has different values. People from one culture will have difficulties understanding some aspects of another culture. Many inhabitants outside Saudi Arabia have a problem understanding the situation facing the local people. They cannot understand why many people would oppose something as basic as women driving cars. However, the situation is different for the people in Saudi Arabia. They have a high regard for their religion and local customs. Most conservative people in the country oppose the idea of women driving cars, and they tie it to religious beliefs. This explains why many women would choose not to participate in the protests. To them, they would be defying religion and tradition, and they do not find this acceptable. Therefore, any solutions to the problems must consider the culture and beliefs of the people.
Members of a group have to understand the situation they are facing and the actions that each one of them does. Social media has increased shared awareness by broadcasting the messages through different networks. Shared awareness has led to the dictator’s dilemma or the conservative dilemma. In such situations, states that are used to having control of public speech have to account for the anomalies created when the people use the social networks to communicate. The public often has different perspectives from the state. The state responds through censorship and propaganda. In 2011, the Saudi Arabian officials were forced to shut down a website that called for the repealing of the ban from driving. In particular, the website had sought for volunteers to join their cause on a certain date to demand for the ban and the instant issuance of driving licenses to women. It invoked their right to be free and dared the government to challenge their opinion through a judicial process instead of holding street crackdowns on dissent. Therefore, the strongly worded article posed a threat to the social order of the kingdom and reignited debate on such a divisive topic that the government decided to have it shutdown. This curtailed the momentum for the protests and reduced the contact among the organizers.
Privately, public officials admitted that they were trying to limit people’s ability to communicate. In 2013, clerics vehemently supported the king at his palace when the women protested again. They spread messages, which were meant to discourage women from driving and people from supporting the cause. Some of them claimed that driving has a negative effect on women’s reproductive system. Precisely, it was sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan who made those remarks. He was quoted as having said that since driving requires one to sit in an upright posture, women’s ovaries were affected and could lead to the birth of children with various deformities. This was a scary tactic employed by the cleric. They had realized that many women were receiving backing from other quarters for the campaign. The Saudi Arabian culture values family and such a statement has damaging effects. It was aimed at appealing to emotions and sought to rely on religious doctrines to prevail over mere liberal issues in a conservative country.
People recognize the importance of the social media. They have realized the potential it has in causing changes in a country. The public has used it to its advantage as it has given them a voice and a chance to speak out about the issues facing them. Leaders recognize that people can mobilize through the social media and bring down the government. They harass and arrest those who use social media for political purposes. It is common for religious police who have prosecutorial powers to detain citizens whom they consider have broken the various morality laws in the land. A majority of their targets are women. Likewise, they have been criticized for being heavy handed and biased in their arrests. Having no remorse, these personnel do not hide their opinion of resisting all forms of progression within the kingdom and this includes implementing a strict dress code as well as monitoring and allowing limited online activity. Nevertheless, this has not dampened the spirit of most of these women who would like to see an overhaul of the ban on driving (Chapell 1). Since 2011, more than a hundred women have been arrested since they started driving as a way of protesting. These women have spent time in police custody because of their actions. They have been forced to sign papers ordering them not to continue with their activities. One of the women, Manal al-Sharif who is active in the protests has a blog where she posts videos of other women driving. She also asks women who follow her on twitter to participate in the protests. The authorities have ordered her to stop her online activities. This has created a scenario in which the government finds itself in a dilemma of willing to obey international laws on human rights and preventing an Arab Spring uprising on its soil.
Many people around the world cannot understand the Saudi Arabian culture and laws that forbid women from driving. Many other women in Islamic countries drive without problems. Those, behind such restrictions, hold conservative and traditional views that aim to uphold the values of the male dominated society. Both men and women support and oppose the ban from driving. Most women lack the courage to defy the society. Others simply believe what they are told by the men. Although there are no specific laws banning women from driving, the country does not give them licenses. Women may be arrested, even when they are learning how to drive on their own.
Shirky has outlined some of the effects of the online technologies. She has noted that the social media is powerful as a means of communication and as a way of organizing the locals. Governments have realized this, and they have looked for ways of ensuring that the social media does not become overly influential. It has threatened individuals working on any law reforms, and it has spread propaganda about different issues. Such measures are intended to reduce the effect of social media. Shirky also notes the importance of culture when trying to understand actions and behavior of others. Many people in the western countries expect the Saudi Arabian women to behave in a particular way during protests. However, they do not understand the influence of culture on a community’s behavior. Understanding the Saudi Arabian culture might lead to ways of finding solutions that are more effective. For example, women are not electable or allowed to vote. Although there are indications that the king has allowed the former, this lack of women empowerment fuels tensions among the male and female genders. In its defense, the ruler insists that Sunni Islam provides the guidelines on how women’s roles are to be defined. Furthermore, there is a practice of sex separation. This is where men and women are not allowed to visit certain public places together. Despite the power of the social media, it cannot work without the support of the public and the civil organizations. Mass movements will ensure that people achieve their goals. With the greater public refusing to join the protests, it remains doubtful that the women’s efforts will be effective.
Chapell, Bill. “Saudi women Get Behind Wheel for Drive-In protest”. NPR., 26 October 2013. web. 9 April 2014.
Madina, Al. “ These shackles Must be Removed”. Saudi Gazette, 9 April 2014. web. 9 April 2014.
Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change.” Foreign Affairs 90.1 (2011): 28-41