When I was a youth growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I couldn't wait to get my driver's license. I turned 16, then impatiently waited another month to complete my driver's ed course. When I had my license in my hand, it was like holding a tiny piece of freedom. I could go to the movies or the bowling alley or to see my favorite musical (Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which incidentally is so good that it is Chicago's longest running musical), whenever I wanted to. Not that I had a car, but my parents generously let me use theirs. It was great.
Except that it wasn't that great, really. It turned out that I sort of hated driving. Driving required concentration. I couldn't gaze out the window and make pithy comments about the scenery or read a newspaper or just stare into space. Driving was a responsibility. When I moved to New York City to attend college, I eagerly traded my parents' car keys for subway tokens. Now that, I thought, was freedom. Just wait for the train and then go wherever I want.
The fact that I can drive or take public transportation and generally not worry about being groped is one of the basic freedoms that are afforded to me that are denied to millions of women around the world (and even in some communities in America -- The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported on June 8 that women are not allowed to drive in the town of New Square, NY). It's not the driving or subway per se, it is the freedom to move about as I please that is so precious.
Recently, women in Saudi Arabia were inspired by one brave woman, Manal al-Sharif, who videotaped herself driving in Saudi Arabia and posted it on YouTube. This was huge because women are banned from driving supposedly for religious reasons. But as Hala Al-Dosari, Saudi Arabian women's rights activist told PBS News Hour, "We have surveyed the written laws in Saudi Arabia, and there is no written law in Saudi Arabia constitution or the traffic law that really specifies prohibition of women from driving." After Ms. Al-Sharif was arrested, the government had to justify it, so they claimed that there was a religious fatwa issued in the mid-1990s.
A protest encouraging women to drive was called for June 17. Supporters used Twitter to voice their support, #Women2drive. The protest was small.The Atlantic Wire reports that between 13 and 20 female drivers were on the road, but the fact that they were not arrested and imprisoned is a victory. (In 1990, 47 women were "arrested and severely punished" for this type of demonstration, and of course, Ms. al-Sharif was much more recently imprisoned for driving.)
Many analysts are excited about what all this means. On PBS News Hour, Ms. al-Dosari noted that there is a bigger prize around the corner:
Of course women are demanding... removal of discrimination against them in all aspects of life... the most powerful movement that happened was Manal because of her arrest. We had another campaign going on, but it didn't really receive a lot of attention, although the local media talked about it a lot, which is the campaign to allow women to participate in the municipal elections. And this is one of the first elections allowed for people. It's the first election where 50 percent of the members in municipal counties -- or councils -- are now open for people to vote and to be elected, instead of being appointed. So, there was another movement along the driving movement.
As of March, women were still not allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia. Then in early June, the Shura Council recommended women be allowed to vote in... 2015. This right will only be granted if the King approves it. It also means that women will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming September elections. They will still not be allowed to stand for election, though.
In the United States, 81% of women have driver's licenses (or at least that is true of Wisconsin, which I will apply to the rest of the country because it is the only statistic I could find and as they say, "So goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation" or at least I say that now anyway). In 2004, 74% of women were registered to vote, and 65% of women actually did so, according to the Census Bureau. It is my sincerest hope that the women of Saudi Arabia will soon be able to enjoy the same freedoms and rights as women in America. And it is my equal hope that women in America will take better advantage of the rights that we have - that we also fought hard to gain - and vote and run for office.
As Manal al-Sharif recently reminded us, it only takes one woman to do something that inspires us all.
Credit Image: © David Joles/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPRESS.com/
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