Sunday, May 29, 2011

Driving Miss Crazy !

A week ago in a city in Saudi Arabia, that bastion of ultra-Islamic Wahhabism, the government moved swiftly to extinguish a budding protest movement of women claiming the right to drive, a campaign inspired by uprisings across the Arab world demanding new freedoms but is at risk of foundering. It's not like she wanted to topple the Saudi government, but no matter, any dissent is not tolerated.

Manal al-Sharif, 32, (see photo) one of the organizers, was detained Sunday in the eastern city of Dammam for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her and her female supporters cause. She was arrested after two much-publicized drives to highlight the Facebook campaigns she helped organize to encourage women across Saudi Arabia to participate in a collective protest scheduled for June 17.

The campaign attracted many supporters, more than 12,000 on the Facebook page, but have been blocked by the kingdom. Ms Sharif's arrest was very likely intended to give others pause before participating in the protests in a country where a woman's public reputation, including her ability to marry, can be badly damaged by an arrest. Her imprisonment is due to the government not wanting anybody to think they can get away with organizing anything on Facebook. They saw that the revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak gained crucial momentum online.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. But the topic remains a highly emotional issue in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even work without their husbands' or fathers' permission. For religious puritans (scumbags) the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains anarchically steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions which should have been buried under a huge pile of camel dung a hundred years ago!

Ms Sharif's supporters have sent an online petition to King Abdullah, asking him to free her and grant women the right to drive which gathered signatures from more than 600 men and women. However, some women were opposed to this campaign because they said that driving remains such a social "lightening rod" and that raising the issue is likely to set back efforts to gain more fundamental freedoms like voting or ending the legal guardianship that allows Saudi men to control virtually every aspect of women's lives.

But Ms Sharif and others decided to take to the roads this month to encourage a higher turnout for June's national protest. Saudi newspapers have been filled with articles in recent days detailing a rash of women taking to the roads and then publishing confessions of women who drove their children to school, a father to the airport and of themselves on errands.

The Way I See that these suppressed Saudi women have watched Oprah Winfrey on the their TV sets over the years and have been instilled with her "get-up-girl-and do-it" kind of energetic self esteem, much to the chagrin of the Kingdom's menfolk. The internal frustrations are welling up.

However, one of the main arguments for allowing women to drive is the economic cost. There are some 800,000 foreign drivers in the kingdom and the roughly $350 monthly salary needed to hire one is considered an economic drain on the middle class. Perhaps and hopefully soon the rulers of Saudi Arabia will realize that a few concessions will give them future security from a larger backlash.

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