Saudi sisters in the driving seat – Wajeha Al-Huwaider
by Sarah Cheverton, WVoN Co-editor
I write a lot of fiction in my spare time, but seriously, even I couldn’t make this shit up.
Nor would I want to.
My editor sent me a video interview with the inspiring Saudi women’s rights campaigner Wajeha Al-Huwaider, posted above for your delectation and delight.
The interview comes courtesy of the fantastic YouTube campaign, Honk for Saudi Women, which is encouraging men and women drivers from all over the world to post videos of themselves in their cars honking their support for the ban against women driving in Saudi.
Watching the interview, once again I find myself wandering amongst the many misshapen forms of contemporary global misogyny, feeling the familiar desire to twist each ugly little feature into something recognizable as sanity.
The only thing that rescues me from melting into an incoherent puddle of sailor-shaming curses is the calm, gentle and smiling certainty of Al-Huwaider as she smiles out from YouTube at me – silently beaming the message, don’t panic liberal England, we got this.
Al-Huwaider is a writer and journalist, a seasoned women’s rights campaigner, the co-founder of the Society for Defending Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia – which, among other things, campaigns against child marriage - and the winner of the 2004 PEN/NOVIB Free Expression Award. That’s just for starters.
If you don’t know what PEN is, first go and stand in the corner until I tell you to come out – take your laptop with you, I don’t want to lose my audience here.
Second, feel the enlightenment take root as I tell you that they are a society that exists to promote international writing and solidarity amongst writers from all over the world.
No, you can’t come out of the corner yet. Ok, you can, but don’t do it again.
According to her biography on the PEN website, Al Huwaider was “first banned from publishing in 2003″ (please note that ‘first banned‘ from publishing), having been a prolific Saudi journalist writing for the Arabic language daily Al-Watan and the English language daily Arab News.
On International Women’s Day 2008, Al Huwaider was arrested for uploading onto YouTube that video of herself driving, and a few days later, so was her friend and fellow activist, Manal Al Sharif, for the same reason.
And once again, spurred on by the free space that is still a small and well-loved enclave of the internet, an innovative human rights campaign was born, supporting women’s right to basic freedom in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women, says Al-Huwaider are “treated like children…..they cannot take any decisions on their own.”
Instead, women’s freedoms come only through the involvement of a male guardian who grants permissions for all freedoms exercised, including the right to drive.
Flashback to Stepford anyone?
Without this written permission from a man, Saudi women cannot work, cannot study, cannot marry of their own free will – and they certainly cannot drive. The guardian can be any male, even the woman’s son.
“It’s totally humiliating.”
So with so many freedoms restricted, why have the campaigners chosen to focus on driving?
Simple. The right to drive underpins and I think, symbolizes the freedom of movement of Saudi women.
“Many women in Saudi Arabia don’t work,” Al-Huwaider says and one of the reasons is that they cannot drive themselves.
“If we are not allowed to drive, it affects the whole family, not just women.”
Al-Huwaider has faced many accusations that the driving force (I can’t help it) behind the campaign is coming from outside Saudi, but believes that this is just an opposition tactic – in part fuelled by those wishing to create a secular/Islamic divide.
“It has nothing to do with Islam,” she says of the tradition against women driving, “It’s not against the law…it’s just tradition.”
Despite this, women are frequently arrested for driving without permissions. Although not usually charged, in late July a 35 year old woman was reported to be preparing to face trial for the unforgivable crime of attempting to drive herself to hospital for medical treatment.
Of her critics, she says, “It’s so funny…we’ve been demanding that right [to drive] for more than 20 years…”
“Any woman who believes in women’s rights , especially Saudi women, please support us. We need you.”
Asked whether she will be able to drive freely in Saudi in her lifetime, Al-Huwaider smiles.
“I think so, yes. It’s going to happen soon.”
Insha’allah to that.
I can think of far worse women to steer my ship by (Sarah Palin, Margaret Thatcher, Celine Dion: please stand up) than Wajeha Al-Huwaider.
And just so you know, from this day forth, my measure of success is to be banned from publishing. As Billy Bragg once famously drawled in his Essex twang: If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.