October 27, 2013

SMILOWITZ: Aspiring Toward Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving. This, coupled with the country’s ban on public gatherings and its mandatory guardianship system, has stifled gender equality in the country for decades. However, this past weekend, more than 60 women across the country drove cars in defiance of this prohibition, in hopes that the Saudi government will finally repeal these restrictive bans.

First, a little background about the circumstances currently facing women in Saudi Arabia. Although there is no formal law banning them from doing so, authorities do not issue women licenses. Under the country’s guardianship system, women cannot be legally responsible for their own affairs and a male relative must give them permission if they want to travel, get married or enroll in higher education.

Under these restrictions, women have still managed to raise their voices against the government. In 1991, 47 women protested by driving through the streets of the capital, Riyadh, and although they were arrested, detained and suspended from their workplaces, the act was the first in a chain of protests against the prohibition. In 2011, dozens of women participated in the “Women2Drive” campaign and not only drove, but also filmed and uploaded videos of themselves in the act. Again, the law was not repealed.

Now, as another protest has gone underway, we have yet to see the government make a change toward establishing gender equality for its people. The Oct. 26 Women’s Driving Campaign has already gathered thousands of signatures on its online petition, and the campaign’s twitter account, @oct26driving, has more than 40,000 followers. Despite the campaign being built around the Oct. 26 date, many of the women who participated didn’t even wait until October 26 to start driving, and went out, drove around and posted videos before the set date.

Nonetheless, according to Huffington Post, up until the official day of the protest, authorities issued statements warning that violators who “disturb public peace” will be dealt with forcefully. Some activists claimed that they received telephone calls from the interior ministry asking them not to participate in the campaign, while clerics of the government have claimed that allowing women to drive will lead to “licentiousness.” One cleric even went as far as claiming that medical studies show driving a car harms a woman’s ovaries. Ultimately, the Agence France-Presse reported that about 16 Saudi women received fines for taking the wheel and driving during the protest.

With all of this in mind, it seems as though the Saudi government is slowly beginning to introduce reforms; after the protest in 2011, King Abdullah granted women the ability to sit on the national advisory council and allowed them to vote and run in municipal elections. So, perhaps the fact that the authorities did not punish the protestors as severely as in the past is a hopeful sign that the government is starting to acknowledge and accept the change toward gender equality. However, the male guardianship system has not been altered and is still as stringent as ever, a restriction that, along with the ban on allowing women to drive, has potentially fatal consequences. When Saudi women complain that they don’t have a male relative to drive them places or money to spend on hiring a driver, the clerics claim that the women should call for better public transportation systems rather than a driver’s licenses. Yet, what if a child is seriously injured and a male relative or driver is not around to take them to the hospital? Will that child die simply because his or her mother was not allowed to drive?

Protests occur on our campus all the time, usually without interference by the authorities. Even if the police do get involved, students at Cornell have a right to protest and make their voices heard, and they fully make use of that right. Similarly, driving a car is an act that we oftentimes forget is a luxury, one that in another part of the world, for a specific group of people, is actually prohibited. Women who attend Cornell are in school because they have dreams and aspirations to become doctors, lawyers and teachers, while women in Saudi Arabia have dreams and aspirations to get a license and drive a car. So, let’s hope that the Saudi government can move in the direction toward granting their female citizens the right to drive a car, so that they can finally realize their dreams and aspirations of achieving equality.