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Setting the bar low in Saudi

July 29, 2011
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A lot of people have reacted to the recent campaign by some women in Saudi Arabia to gain the legal right to drive with 1) a sort of affronted surprise that women are not already allowed to drive there; and 2) a strong burst of support/a petition/a tweet of solidarity/a letter to their Congressperson/the Secretary of State. All can think every time I read a story about the Women2Drive campaign is ‘Wow. The bar is just so, so low for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.’

Let’s look at a small sampling of the issues that are making headlines and sparking debates as regards various countries in the Middle East and North Africa lately.

Egypt: the role of the army, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new constitution, the survival of the revolution, the absence of international observers in the planned elections.

Libya: NATO’s intervention: its appropriateness, its efficacy; the Libyan rebels: who they are, what a government run by them would look like, whether or not they are any better than the current regime, whether or not the West should be arming them.

Syria:  human rights violations – torture, kidnappings, mass killings, government crackdowns, refugees, sectarian divisions, burgeoning civil war.

Yemen: lawlessness, tribal divisions, terrorism, AQAP, semi-covert U.S. intervention, power struggles, whether or not Saleh will return and what that return would mean.

Bahrain: human rights, torture, military tribunals, sectarian divisions, the validity/seriousness of reform talks, Saudi intervention, whether or not the Shia populace is being oppressed by the Sunni regime.

Lebanon:  Hizballah’s role in the government and society, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s indictments in the murder of Rafik Hariri.

Tunisia: wait, we talk about Tunisia? Oh right, they had one of those revolution-type things, too…

The point is that however far from universal rights and democracy each of these countries might be, the discussion about each of them is about issues of democratization, human rights, sectarian balance, political participation, freedom – in other word, serious business. Here is what a similar survey of stories and debates on Saudi Arabia from recent months would look like:

Saudi Arabia: women fighting for the right to drive a car.

This, I think, is excellent news for the Saudi regime.

I want to be clear: I support the goals of the Women2Drive movement. I absolutely think that the women of Saudi Arabia should be legally permitted  to drive a car. However, I also think that it is greatly to the benefit of the Saudi monarchy that this is the issue getting the world’s attention, because this is utterly inconsequential in the grand scale of women’s rights, and human rights in general. At least some of the women who are fighting for the right to drive understand it in a larger context. Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the campaign and the woman whose imprisonment for driving brought international attention to the movement this past May, said “[driving] is one of our smallest rights. If we fight, we can build women who trust themselves, have belief to get the bigger rights we are fighting for.” She clearly sees this as the first small step toward a larger goal, and coming from a position of such immense inequality, there is a pragmatism to seeking the goal of equal rights one step at a time. However, it’s important to remember that it is just that: one small step.

To an American, to a Westerner, to almost anyone, it sounds like such a basic and obvious thing: of course women should be allowed to drive. Of course we should support this movement. When Ms. al-Sharif’s situation drew such attention this past Spring, it led to a large change.org petition, an open letter from several U.S. Congresswomen, and a public statement of support from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is all well and good, but I think it’s important to remember it’s just one piece of a larger issue. Saudi Arabian society has some of the most acute gender inequality in the world, not to mention a strict official religious interpretation that inspires discrimination to the point of oppression, an almost total absence of the rule of law, and a dangerous lack of guarantees of basic human rights.

Women are not legally permitted to drive. They are also forbidden from traveling without a male chaperone, from working in many industries, from interacting with men outside their own families, from appearing outside their homes in anything less than head-to-toe cover. They only have a say in whom they marry if their father/male relatives allow them to. Women’s voices mean little in court: it takes two women to equal the legal weight of the testimony of one man, and generally a woman needs a male relative to speak on her behalf in court anyway. Sexual violence against women, when prosecuted at all, is often found to be the fault of the woman, no matter what the evidence presented. Saudi Arabia is a true monarchy. There is no parliament, merely a shura council, the members of which are appointed by the king and dependent on him for what power they possess. The only publicly elected offices are on municipal councils. They wield very little power, and women are not eligible to run. Women also, needless to say, do not have the vote.

It is not just women’s freedoms that are restricted in Saudi Arabia. The religious police can arrest people with impunity, and there is little recourse for individuals who do not come from influential families. There is no rule of law. In fact, there is very little in the way of legal codes. The justice system operates primarily on uncodified sharia law with no judicial precedent, and regulations set by royal decree. This leaves cases open to the interpretation of the individual judges, although the government has spoken of codifying its interpretations of sharia law over the last couple of years.

Religious freedom is strictly curtailed. There are no churches in the whole country, for example, and most of the spectrum of Islam is barely tolerated, if at all. Wahhabi religious leaders regularly impugn Shiism, some going so far as to denounce Shia as apostate. There is a very small Shia population in Medina, the members of which keep their sectarian identity so quiet as to be almost hidden. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shia communities are in the eastern part of the country, in the land of vast oil fields, and their occasional expressions of protest or dissent have been met with harsh crackdowns. There is little doubt that it is with an uncomfortable eye on their own Shia population that Saudi Arabia has sent troops and arms to the Bahraini regime in recent months.

In the last week, the substance of a new anti-terror law was leaked to Amnesty International. While Saudi spokesmen have condemned the leak and stated that the law is strictly intended for use against terrorists, critics have pointed its potential applicability to crushing internal dissent. The law expands the definition of terrorism to include ‘harming the reputation of the state’ and allows prisoners to be held without contact for up to 120 days, and sometimes longer. It also includes harsh penalties for a variety of acts, including a minimum of ten years in prison for ‘questioning the integrity of Saudi Arabia’s rulers.’ While a number of these measures would be nothing new in the country’s judicial system, this would codify what Amnesty is referring to as “massive human rights violations.”

All this is a long-winded way of saying that the battle over women driving is one the Saudi regime can afford to lose, and certainly one it can afford to have making headlines. Simply put, with the bar so low that women gaining the right to drive would represent a great victory for rights in the kingdom, we are a long way from calling for comprehensive human rights reform there, and that’s just the way they want it. Support Women2Drive, yes, but also strive to maintain perspective. If women gain the right to drive, it will be a victory, but a small one and by no means should it be seen as the end of the conversation. In a country where women have been imprisoned for being raped and peaceful Shia protesters have vanished into state custody with barely a whisper, it’s worth questioning whether we’re discussing women’s right to drive in spite of the wishes of the Saudi establishment or because that establishment has decided that it’s worth allowing public airing of this inconsequential issue in order to avoid public address of more substantive and uncomfortable ones.

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