This is the English original version I wrote and was translated to German and published in the new print edition of Stern magazine no41/2011, out today, Thursday, 6th of October, pages 54-57.
In Saudi Arabia my gender decides whether or not I can enter certain ministries, what I can major in college and if I can name my own child.
My gender mandates that I cannot drive my own car. No matter what age I am or how well I drive, I have to find a male to drive my car.
If I were divorced, a widow or simply had a husband that was out of the country at the time, my gender dictates that I have to find a male relative to obtain a birth certificate and document my child’s name at government circles.
My gender also mandates whether I can freely leave the country or not. As a woman, if I need to travel, I am at the mercy of my father and husband. At the airport I am stopped and required to show an official yellow card from the Saudi Interior Ministry that states that my husband has granted me permission to travel. If I fail to provide it, then I’m escorted out of the airport and told to go home and convince my husband.
My husband can legally divorce me without reason, without my presence and without my knowledge.
In public schools, from the age of twelve, girls are forced to cover their faces completely with not even a slit for their eyes as they enter and leave the strictly girls only schools.
All restaurants cannot allow women in unless they have a separate entrance and area for them to sit in.
All of these rules are not only socially or culturally enforced but legally as well. So that no matter how much our society may move forward and general awareness is raised, the laws pull us back. This legal and governmental factor makes it extremely difficult for forward thinking women to demand change. If I drive my car as a woman, I am not only breaking a social taboo but also entering into a discussion of whether or not I’m breaking the law and challenging the government. This is what has led to the nine-day imprisonment of Manal Al Sharif. One of the accusations presented against her by government officials is driving a car while female within a city and inciting other women to do the same. Just last week another Saudi woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car in a city. The king soon pardoned her, but it remains a fact that a judge can do that.
A member of the highest Islamic council, Sheikh Al Manea, reasons that it is justified to sentence a woman to physical punishment or imprisonment for driving a car, not because she drove the car per se but because she broke the law. These types of arguments are what makes it particularly difficult for the women rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The argument that you are not only breaking a social, cultural or even religious taboo but also going against the government and legal system can be a powerful deterrent to Saudi women who need to speak up for their rights.
A few months ago, the aforementioned Manal Al Sharif, spearheaded a movement to get Saudis used to the idea of a woman behind the steering wheel. July 17th was set as the day when Saudi women would start to drive themselves to work or school rather than rely on a male driver. The purpose was that from that day and onwards more and more women would slowly gain the courage to drive. At the same time Saudi society in general would gradually get used to the sight of women driving. Unfortunately that was not how it worked out. A couple of weeks before July 17th, Manal Al Sharif was arrested.
On the day itself there was a heavy police presence on all the main streets. Despite these obstacles, a few brave women drove their cars. I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of it, even though Ive never learned to drive. I got into the car with another Saudi woman, Azza Al Shmasi. As I videotaped, she drove for 15 minutes close to a main street in Riyadh. When I got home I excitedly shared the video with my followers on Twitter, as did all the women who drove that day. Then for the next few weeks, more and more women drove and uploaded videos. It seemed as though we were making progress.
Unfortunately our progress was severely halted when several of the women who took part started receiving phone calls from the interior ministry and getting trial dates. I started receiving calls from the investigation unit at the Interior Ministry about a month after the last time I got into the car with Azza. In the beginning it seems as if they had made the assumption that my husband does not support me in my fight for women rights. They asked to speak to him, as though they did not have his full details right there in my file. This tactic of threatening women with informing their male guardians might have worked decades ago but Saudi society has evolved past that. The overwhelming majority of women who went out to drive have the full support of their immediate families. After two weeks of these harassing phone calls, my husband was called to the ministry. He refused to sign the pledge that he would make sure that I would not drive or upload videos of driving. The phone calls stopped. However, another Saudi woman, Najla Hariri has not been as fortunate. After her phone calls and visit to the interior ministry, she is currently awaiting a trial.
Here we were, fighting for the simple and basic right to drive our own cars. So we were surprised when King Abdullah surpassed all these rights that we had been fighting for and granted women not only the vote but also the right to be nominated as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. The king also announced that women would be included in his appointed parliament. These changes are huge breakthroughs in the fight for womens rights, however they remain far in the future and have no effect on the day to day life of Saudi women today. They have however enraged many of our sheikhs. One such sheikh is Shiekh Allehiedan, another member of the Saudi highest Islamic council. He came out on TV to state that the king had not consulted with him before these announcements and that he is more protective of the country and its Sharia constitution than the king himself. Other extreme conservatives have also made a point of stating their unhappiness with these announcements. A worrying but unsurprising development; the extreme conservative have had a hold on the country from its very beginning. A partnership between the government and the mosque that is gradually growing sour because of the failure of both in reining in the peoples demands for their freedom and rights.
Many people fail to realize how relatively new Saudi Arabia is. It was not declared a country until 1932, so it is only about 80 years old. It is about 5 times the size of Germany. Our first king, King Abdulaziz, managed to unify this vast desert land despite the different cultures and even religious Islamic sects of its people. Then with the discovery of oil, led our dispersed people into building one of the more prosperous countries of the world.
Unlike the majority of our neighbors we were not colonized so we did not have a western law system imposed upon us. We had to start with the tools we had at the time; Arab tribal law and religion. Starting as we did from square one in the modern world makes for some interesting challenges. Condensing hundreds of years of evolvement of national law, civilian rights and freedom in a few decades. From that perspective, it is not hard to understand how we have come to have all these modern amenities and yet live a lifestyle that is reminiscent of medieval times.
As a Saudi woman, I understand all this. I also understand how exotic Saudi women are to the rest of the world. Our abayas and culture are a more subtle form of the same exoticism of the Padaung tribe where women wore neck bracelets that made them look giraffe necked. Despite how uncomfortable it looked and how much it affected their lives, it seemed to outsiders as though they were proud of their heritage and wanted to maintain it by passing it on to future generations. However when human rights organizations dug beneath the surface they found that it was face, politics and economics that were forcing this tradition on women who wanted better for themselves and their daughters.
Although we don’t wear our niqabs because we need to draw tourists, we still have in common with these Burmese women that a combination of face, politics and economics have constricted our freedom and put many unnecessary obstacles in the path of our happiness. Arab traditions and culture have dictated the most extreme governmentally enforced environment of gender discrimination. So much so that these factors have resulted in the creation of the only gender apartheid in todays world.
As a Saudi woman, I understand all this, yet; somehow it does not alleviate my frustration at how my country’s history has such an impact on my day-to-day life.