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Saudi Women Belong Behind the Wheel, Too

Posted: 11/01/2013 6:30 pm

I never have to think twice about getting behind the wheel whenever I need groceries, or pick up kids, or go to the bank. I do not wait for my husband, or father or brother to first give me permission to leave the house, or wait for his availability to attend to my needs.

In Saudi Arabia, of course I would not have that luxury. Women there do not have the permission to drive. They are not issued licenses. In the twenty-first century, the desert kingdom is the only country in the world where this injustice continues.

But 60 brave Saudi women said "enough is enough" to this nonsense last week. Even if it was simply driving around the block, they decided to defy authorities and get behind the wheel. Some removed their face coverings; some still wore the niqab and drove in full burqa, with only a slit around their eye area to allow for vision.

Whether or not these women had the support of their husbands is questionable. If they did, then there is already social change underway in Saudi Arabia. If not, then we are still to applaud the efforts of the Saudi women for taking what turns out to be an even bolder stand of defying not only Saudi authorities, but also the strictures they might face at home. Kudos to the husbands if they support their wives! If the women don't have the support of their male guardians, then double kudos to these women.

I have always believed that Muslim women must fight for their rights themselves. Unfortunately in the Islamic world, women are led to believe they have all the rights they need. If they don't enjoy equality with their husbands, brothers or other male relatives, then God has decreed such inequality for a good reason.

It is shameful indeed that in this day and age, women in Saudi Arabia continue to be infantilized in this manner by rendering them incapable of any decision. They must be chaperoned by their male guardians. It is shameful that they are fighting for a basic right like driving, that we in Canada take for granted.

But let's not forget that there are pockets of Saudi Arabia right here in Canada. Imams here issue fatwas that women must seek the permission of their husbands to even chat with an outsider. They must also leave the home with the husbands' permission; they must only entertain people in his house that he alone approves of and so forth. This narrative is fairly common. It is being advanced at wedding ceremonies and at Friday sermons at various mosques.

Both men and women are buying this narrative. One can see proof of it in the proliferation of the hijab and burqa in Canada.

The tide seems to be turning the opposite way when it comes to conservative, fundamentalist Islam. When the world is progressing toward acknowledging even greater rights and full equality for women, the Islamic world is preparing to deprive them of many rights they might have enjoyed even 50 years ago.

It will be a long time before Muslim women even realize that they are mistreated in Muslim society. Until this realization becomes prevalent, the fight for equality will be a long and arduous one. Unfortunately too many Muslim women still believe they are privileged under sharia-based Islam.

For now, it is refreshing to see that there is some light at the end of this long and dark tunnel in Saudi Arabia.

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  • King Abdullah grants women right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. The decision is hailed as a breakthrough, but the local councils are toothless and operate in the shadow of provincial governments led by powerful members of the ruling Al Saud family. <em>King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivers a speech to the Saudi Shura Council, or advisory assembly, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP Photo)</em>

  • The king appoints 30 women to the top advisory body, the Shura Council. The body cannot legislate and its male-dominated chamber has so far not taken up a request by three female members to discuss the issue of allowing women to drive. <em>In this March 29, 2010 file photo, Saudi women visit the Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market (STTIM) fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)</em>

  • In a first, Saudi Arabia sends two female athletes to the 2013 Olympics in London. But they were criticized by conservatives for performing sports in front of a mixed gender audience. Aspiring female athletes in the kingdom struggle to find access to training facilities. <em>In this Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 file photo, Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar waves before competing in a women's 800-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)</em>

  • The government rolls out a law penalizing domestic abuse, including neglect. A state-backed advertisement shows a woman in a traditional black face veil with a bruised eye peering through, encouraging society to speak out against abuse. The law does not address the guardianship system that grants male family members authority over their female relatives, and often the abuser is their guardian. Two Saudi women activists who helped a Canadian mother allegedly abused by her Saudi husband were sentenced to 10 months in jail for "inciting a woman against her husband." <em>An advertisement released August 2013 by King Khalid Foundation represents Saudi Arabia's first campaign against domestic violence.</em>

  • A law on the books since 2006 is finally implemented, allowing women to work as sales' clerks in female apparel and lingerie stores. Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheikh, spoke out against the Labor Ministry's decision in a sermon just before the law was applied, saying it contradicts Islamic law. The kingdom's religious establishment follows a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. <em>Fully-veiled Saudi women shop at a lingerie store in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah on January 2, 2012. From this week, only female staff will be able to sell women's lingerie in Saudi Arabia (AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • The Labor Ministry allows women to work in certain sectors without first obtaining their guardian's approval. Still, the decrees mandate that female workers not interact with men, reinforcing strict gender segregation, according to Human Rights Watch. Some private sector workplaces remain exempt from these decrees. <em>Saudi female journalists attend a men's Asian Handball Championship match between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Jeddah on January 31, 2012. Female journalists were recently allowed to cover sporting events despite strict segregation of the sexes outside the home that is enforced by the kingdom's powerful religious police which means that women are effectively barred from many jobs and social activities. (AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Women are given licenses to practice law. The four women with permits will face conservative male judges who have wide discretion to remove a lawyer from a case before them. <em>Two women walk on campus at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) on October 13, 2009, in Thuwal, 80 kilometers north of Jeddah. (Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Private schools are officially allowed to hold sports activities for girls, and physical education is required as part of the curriculum. Sports centers around the country are almost entirely for men only, female gyms are costly and public schools have yet to implement physical education for girls. <em>Members of a Saudi female soccer team practice at a secret location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s official press agency says the Education Ministry has allowed private female schools to hold sports activities within the Islamic Sharia laws. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)</em>

  • A ban on women riding bicycles and motorbikes is lifted. Females must be accompanied by a male guardian, usually a husband or son, and only ride in restricted areas. <em>A veiled Saudi women rides a motorbike in the tourist town of Aley, east of Beirut on July 23, 2008. (JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Official reports suggest women will be allowed to attend soccer matches in a new stadium in 2014. The women will be segregated from the men in sections for families. <em>A Saudi fully veiled woman waves a flag with the picture of Saudi King Abdullah prior the start of Saudi Arabia match against Kuwait in the 21st Gulf Cup in Manama, on January 12, 2013. (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>


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