When Manal Al-Sharif posted avideo of herself driving on YouTube and launched her Women2Drive campaign onFacebook, she drew the eyes of the world yet again to the status of Saudiwomen.
Driving is only one issue amongmany. Of more importance to many Saudi women is their personal security andfreedom: choosing their own husbands and professions; legal recognition asadults and citizens; preventing sexual harassment and domestic violence; andinstitutional support for their financial and legal rights.
To this end, there have been manycampaigns and petitions circulating via Facebook, SMS, Flickr, WhatsApp andTwitter.
This not only raises publicawareness but also offers a way for people to join their voices for a commoncause in a country where public demonstrations are prohibited. In 2009 alone,Internet campaigns called not only for women's right to drive, but also for theright to work or establish businesses without the permission of a maleguardian, to have greater access to divorce, to make the hijab (headscarf) apersonal choice and to ban child marriages.
Despite some conservativebacklash, there are indications of change favouring women's rights.
Whereas in the past, women'srights often seemed to be of concern only to Saudi women, today Saudi men -from King Abdullah to ordinary citizens - have expressed their support forexpanding public space and roles for Saudi women. The King has establishedSaudi Arabia's first co-educational university, appointed women advisors to thegovernment and courts, and expanded public sector job opportunities for women.
Male activists like HilalAl-Harithy and Abdullah Al-Alami have led petition drives to show both men andwomen in support of women driving. Mohammed al-Qahtani even took thepassenger's seat to support his wife, Maha, driving as part of the Junecampaign against the driving ban.
Whereas a 1990 drivingdemonstration in Riyadh generated shock, opposition, arrests and the removal ofsome women from their jobs, today Saudi men and women are openly signingpetitions to the Royal Court and Shoura Council for women's right to drive.Some senior religious scholars, including Sheikh Qays al-Mubarak and SheikhAbdullah Al-Mutlaq, have approved of women driving.
Even Abdullah bin Mohammed binIbrahim Al Al-Sheikh, the Speaker of the Shoura Council, has gone on recordstating that the Council would discuss the issue should the government orCouncil request it. Although this has not happened yet, the Council recentlyapproved a draft resolution to allow women to vote in future municipalelections, indicating its willingness to expand the public role of women.
This has led many to hope thatthe Council will address the driving issue soon.
Technology has also played itspart. Videos of women driving have been posted on YouTube since Wajehaal-Huweidar first posted hers in 2008. Other online campaigns, such as theSaudi women's rights activist Areej Khan's We the Women, have extended thediscussion. Yet only in May 2011 when Manal Al-Sharif was arrested for driving,did the debate go viral.
The members of the Women2Drivecampaign are not calling for the overthrow of the government. They are notrejecting their religion or culture. They are simply trying to be the bestmothers, employees and citizens that they possibly can.
And that means that they need tobe able to drive - safely, carefully and wearing seat belts - to get to work,to care for their children and to carry out the tasks of daily life. It's notabout Westernisation, feminist agendas or a sexual revolution. It's about goingto the grocery store, for example, without relying on someone else.
That said, simply granting womenthe right to drive doesn't instantly resolve the issue. Women need drivingschools, departments where they can apply for and receive their licenses, andbusinesses that provide emergency services to women drivers.
The world should recognise whatSaudi women have already achieved and support them in claiming their rights andcreating institutions and mechanisms for enforcing them. Their efforts fortheir own liberation must be acknowledged and allowed to lead the way, so thatSaudi decisions can be made about Saudi issues.
Women2Drive was begun by and forSaudi women to continue the expansion of their participation in Saudi society.
That's one step closer to the?driver's seat.
Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas isEditor-in-Chief of The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. She teachescomparative theology at Boston College. This article was written for the CommonGround News Service.