Monday, June 13, 2011

Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders

by Farzaneh Milani

New York Times

June 12, 2011

The Arab Spring is inching its way into Saudi Arabia — in the cars of fully veiled drivers.

On the surface, when a group of Saudi women used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize a mass mobile protest defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving, it may have seemed less dramatic than demonstrators facing bullets and batons while demanding regime change in nearby countries. But underneath, the same core principles — self-determination and freedom of movement — have motivated both groups. The Saudi regime understands the gravity of the situation, and it is moving decisively to contain it by stopping the protest scheduled for June 17.

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets — and the right to enter and leave them at will — belong to men. A woman who trespasses is either regarded as a sinful “street-walker” or expected to cover herself in her abaya, a portable house. Should she need to get around town, she can do so in a taxi, with a chauffeur (there are 750,000 of them) or with a man related to her by marriage or blood behind the wheel.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran could not implement similarly draconian driving laws after the 1979 revolution, given that women had driven cars there for decades, the theocratic regime did denounce women riding bikes or motorcycles as un-Islamic and sexually provocative. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed in 1999 that “women must avoid anything that attracts strangers, so riding bicycles or motorcycles by women in public places involves corruption and is forbidden.”