When almost no one showed up to the “day of rage” in Saudi Arabia three months ago, many in the West assumed that Saudis had little to protest. It turns out that at least half of them just couldn’t get there. Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, a growing number of Saudi women are fed up with draconian restrictions that prohibit them from voting, leaving the country without a man’s permission—and driving. They are also wondering why President Obama, the leader of the free world, is largely silent on this issue.
Saudis rightly took note of a small detail left out of President Obama’s historic Middle East speech on May 19. In his first major address since the Arab Spring, the president mentioned Egypt 13 times, Tunisia nine times, Israel 29 times, and Libya six times. How many mentions did Saudi Arabia get? Zero. The president spoke of the most open society in the Middle East—Israel—over two-dozen times, while the theocratic Saudi dictatorship which treats women as slaves was not deemed worthy of a single mention.
But Saudi women can’t wait for Western attention any longer, and are taking matters into their own hands. The evidence is a bold new online initiative: “On June 17th, we, the women of Saudi Arabia, will begin driving our cars” a new Facebook group has declared. “We will simply be practicing a basic human right - the right of transportation” the statement continues. “We do not want to be subject to humiliation by taxi drivers and we do not wish to assign our Mohrams [male guardian] to help us in tasks that we are capable of doing on our own. Some of us work, some take care of our children, and others are widows, who do not have anyone to help them in their daily chores. We wish to live our lives with dignity and we do not want to be reliant on anyone aside from God.”
This group did not form suddenly, but rather is part of a growing number of brave Saudi women who are pushing the boundaries. Three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia’s indefatigable women’s rights champion, Wajeha al Huweidar, filmed her friend Manal al Sharif driving in the eastern province city of Al Khobar and posted it on YouTube. Sharif was promptly arrested, and Huweidar was interrogated. A Facebook page calling for Manal al Sharif’s release was joined by tens of thousands, and a petition signed by hundreds of Saudi intellectuals appealed for her freedom. Though she was released a short time ago, the veil of fear remains.
It is impossible to accurately gauge discontent in Saudi Arabia, a country which jails bloggers and dissidents and recently passed a media amendment banning all criticism of religious and political leaders. Double-think, censorship, and fear permeate daily life, often subconsciously. What seems placid on the surface in any dictatorship can hide simmering anger and humiliation. And these conditions are similar to those found in other countries in the area, for how else can the immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia topple a tyrant who was in power for over two decades in 18 days? There are, of course, important differences between Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and every country in the Middle East, but some elements of dictatorship are uniform everywhere.
I recently asked two leading Saudi liberals, one a blogger and one a columnist, what percentage of men in the Kingdom support women driving. They answered simultaneously: “ninety percent” and “fifteen percent” respectively. This should give any Western pundit pause when pontificating on popular sentiment in Saudi Arabia.
The driving ban imposes a heavy personal toll on all Saudis. When Wajeha al Huweidar’s mother, Salma, fell sick with a heart condition, she had to wait critical hours before seeing her. “I couldn't visit my mother in my hometown when she got sick and passed away a month ago,” she told me. “I had to wait hours for a driver to take me there to see her. This is how bad our life is.”
Though Saudi Arabia’s leader, King Abdullah, is often called a reformer, he recently allocated hundreds of millions of riyals to religious authorities and religious police that enforce theocratic dictatorship. He also supports the guardianship system which, in Huweidar’s words, is “a slavery law applied on women. That law made men masters and women their servants. Men control all aspects of women’s lives from the day they’re born until the day they die.”
Responding to the pleas of Saudi bloggers and dissidents for gender equality, I created the First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix. In January, I sent this online petition to King Abdullah asking him to co-sponsor the initiative. A car race for women in a country which enslaves women may seem humorous to some, but my co-signatories are a distinctly unfunny group. They include former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former CIA head R. James Woolsey, former Congressman Peter Deutsch, and former ambassador to the European Union Kristen Silverberg. Among others, we are also joined by the sitting vice president of the Italian parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs Fiamma Nirenstein, and Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500; she’s a member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, and her helmet and racing suit are on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
When the petition was opened up to the public, hundreds of concerned men and women signed it from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, the West Bank, Morocco, Kuwait, Syria, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Ireland, France, Italy, Turkey, Chile, Japan, Kenya, England, Norway, Belgium, Pakistan, Israel, Germany, Greece, and Albania.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said that the Saudi dictator is working to “expand opportunity for women” and has “established a powerful dialogue that seeks to promote the principles of moderation, tolerance, and mutual respect—core values that we all share."
The First Annual Saudi Women’s Grand Prix is where the rubber meets the road.