Beep beep: Saudi women coming through

We’re all ultra-Green, Boris Bike-riding eco-types these days, so it's not very fashionable to admit this … but I'm a keen driver. I like driving my car! (Beep beep’m, beep beep, yeah ….).

I also use public transport - a lot. I'm the proud owner of a year-long, bus-only London Oyster card (not cheap!) And I fully support cycle lanes and communal cycling schemes (except I'm not entirely sure about the reportedly expensive Barclays-promoting Transport for London scheme…).

But, driving! Yep, I’m always happy to get into my trusty-not-rusty Audi (a nine-year-old A3: not flash, but still fairly stylish … for a hatchback). Your own space, your own music, a feeling of freedom and independence. Things you can’t fit in your flat stuffed in the boot (that’s probably just me …).

I might be slightly odd in being so wedded to my car (maybe it’s because I’m from Coventry, once Britain’s car manufacturing capital) but then driving is a pretty basic, taken-for-granted right we all have. Get a licence, a bit of documentation and … you’re off. There are apparently now in excess of one billion cars in the world, including more than two million on-the-road vehicles in Saudi Arabia (according to this - rather complex - academic paper). Saudi Arabia also has a high number of cars relative to the population (estimated to be the 40th highest per capita rate in the world).

Except … of course, all those cars in Saudi Arabia are being driven by men. Exactly none are being driven (legally) by the country’s millions of women.

It isn’t just driving - Saudi Arabia is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of gender (ranked 129th out of 134 countries by the Global Gender Gap 2010 report: see p263). Legally, women in the country are treated like children. A woman in Saudi Arabia is totally dependent on her male guardian: she needs his permission to travel, to work, to go into higher education or to get married. Yes, Saudi women were - finally - granted the right to vote last year, but only in municipal elections and (yes, you guessed it) only with the permission of their guardian. This piece by Susan Edwards is an interesting glimpse into some of the everyday indignities visited on Saudi women.

But women’s right to drive has become the symbolic issue inside and outside the country. It’s been formally banned in Saudi Arabia since 1990 (when women staged a driving protest to challenge the earlier customary ban) but recently the “Women2Drive” campaign has seen something of a fight-back. Led by people like Manal al-Sharif, it’s still only small-scale - hundreds of supporters rather than thousands - but it’s apparently making (ahem) inroads. (The burst of publicity last year, followed by the imposition of flogging sentences that were - in the event - not carried out, seems to have put pressure on the Saudi authorities. Certainly the concession over limited voting rights followed in the wake of last summer’s driving protests).

Today is International Women’s Day and Amnesty has launched a campaign calling on Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, to press the Saudi King to grant Saudi women the right to drive “as a first step towards guaranteeing their basic rights and ending the discrimination against them”. Please support that here. Also do test-drive the embedded "Saudi women must drive their way to fredom" video, which includes an invitation to take part in a photo-upload solidarity campaign. (And BTW, if you’re looking for a more general think-piece on the state of feminism in 2012, I reckon today’s Zoe Williams’ comment piece is worth a read. “Feminist heresies”! Hmmm….).

(Changing gear …) I’m not a big fan of The Beatles, but I quite like their song Drive My Car (off their pretty good Rubber Soul album). I especially like the Lennon/McCartney chorus line: “Beep beep’m, beep beep, yeah”. So I’d just like to say: it’s time for the Saudi patriarchs to take their foot of the brake when it comes to the advancement of women’s rights in their country. Beep beep’m, beep beep, yeah!

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