Clara Barros/Staff Writer
Just a few days ago, the world watched as women in Saudi Arabia celebrated a landmark: they have just become legally allowed to drive.
Until now, the urban mobility of Saudi women had depended on a male figure — a relative, a husband, or a chauffeur. Last Saturday, this reality was radically changed with 120,000 feminine applications for driver’s licenses, according to state media Al-Ekhbariya TV.
Behind this historical achievement is a combination of economic, political, and social factors, including a necessity to increase the number of women in the Saudi workforce and the political support of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But this victory wouldn’t have been possible without the mobilization of Saudi female activists who consolidated a social force in defense of women’s rights. They fought against a religious right wing that felt like allowing women to drive would turn Saudi Arabia into “a Sodom and Gomorrah”, in the words of Ali Shihabi, founder of The Arabia Foundation.
These brave activists were often arrested. In fact, CNN reported that Saudi security forces imprisoned at least 12 of them last month.
“Even as women are being given the right to drive,” British historian Robert Lacey noted. “Women are being locked up.”
Lacey and the local activists draw attention to Prince Salman’s attempt to portray the lift of the ban as a “men’s gift,” erasing the decades of fierce female protests and demonstrations that pushed for the reform.
Prince Salman is not the only one to erase the history and the struggles of Islamic and/or Middle Eastern women activists. Many of us in the West do that routinely, as famous Indian Gender Studies professor Chandra Mohanty argues.
Many Western folks — even feminists — often uphold the stereotype of an “average Third-World woman” (especially Middle Eastern) who is always sexually constrained, ignorant, tradition-bound, domestic, and victimized.
This image carries an implicit self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, empowered, and free to make choices — ignoring that rape, child molestation, domestic violence and other forms of sexist violence pervade the United States and other Western countries.
This doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye on patriarchal traits of other societies, or human rights violations like the much talked-about Female Genital Mutilation.
But it means we can criticize those problems without reducing women in Saudi Arabia and in other countries to a singular monolithic subject, without erasing the complexities that characterize women of different “classes, religions, cultures, races and castes,” as Mohanty puts it — and without silencing the efforts of native activists who wage their struggle in their own terms.
In fact, some Saudi women have even drawn attention to the limitations of the right to drive — as it primarily aids women in a relatively good economic position, whose families can afford their own car.
“At the end this doesn’t solve the problem,” Batoul said, a CNN interviewee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Public transportation does, and this is what would make the difference for the women who really need it.”
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Photo taken from Flickr.