Move over, the Saudi suffragettes are here

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In 2011, under the leadership of Manal-al- Sharif, the ‘women to drive’ movement was launched following protests against the driving ban imposed by the Saudi regime on women. The movement, which started off as a social media campaign, gained widespread support and even surprised the Saudi regime with its popularity and international attention. In retaliation, the authorities detained Manal and all the women who had driven their cars. “It has not been roses throughout,” says Farah, (name changed), a Saudi woman’s rights activist. “I was one among the few who took part in the driving campaign and we risked a lot when we had gone ahead with it. There could have been serious punishment. Only by some nick of fate were we pardoned.” The Sharia courts, however, did not take the campaign lightly. In what could be called as a first, they handed a legal punishment of 10 lashings to Shaima Jastania for defying the country’s ban on female drivers. Ironically, this punishment came a day after King Abdullah had removed restrictions around women’s voting rights and their rights to hold office. However, King Abdullah intervened and the sentenced was overturned. “There is no going back now. 53 percent of women in Saudi Arabia are university graduates and two-income families have come to the fore to meet the demands of money. It has become an economic necessity for women to work,” says Al Maeena.

While baby steps have been taken to ensure that women get basic rights, Saudi Arabia has also been in an interesting mix of contradictions. For a country so rigid, no eyebrow was ever raised when women had to go into lingerie stores to find men to assist them in picking undergarments. Only in 2006 did the government think of transferring such sales jobs to women. Similarly, for all his liberal approach towards women, King Abdullah also came under the scanner when four of his daughters expressed their anguish at being kept under house-arrest. Princesses Jawahar, Sahar, Hala and Maha had filmed themselves to explain how the king had subjected them to abuse and left them to starve for voicing their dissent. Their mother, Alanoud-Al-Fayez, fled to the UK when she could not take the abuse of the King. Ever since then, the King has kept his four daughters imprisoned out of an act of revenge and cruelty. Some commentators have also stated that the King’s move to provide voting rights to women was an attempt at deflecting attention from his shaky relationship with his ‘jailed’ daughters.

Equally fascinating is the oil rich country’s relation to the US, the latter being one of the most liberal countries as far as women’s rights are concerned. Though both Saudi and the US are on different pages when it comes to women’s rights, they have maintained friendly relations throughout various human rights violations pertaining to Saudi women. On the other hand, prominent Saudi feminists have rejected the Western model of feminism claiming that it has only attempted to whitewash their roots.

However, it must be said that the women of Saudi Arabia are hopeful for a change. “It cannot happen in a day,” says Farah. “My mother would not have dreamed of this day when she was my age.” Al Maeena too echoes a similar sentiment. “Just as India has different states, Saudi Arabia is also not simply one country. There are a growing number of voices seeking a difference and I must say that the numbers resisting change are dwindling.” Incidentally, Al Maeena’s successor, Somayya Jabarti, is the first woman to occupy the position of an editor-in-chief in all of Saudi Arabia.

Even after sustained efforts from feminists cutting across class and caste, the women’s rights movement in India has a long way to go. It is also time to acknowledge this landmark moment in Saudi women’s lives without prejudice for all of our own rights were not earned one fine day. Who knows, one day, Saudi Arabia might cease to exist as the yardstick to measure gender equality.

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