Let Them Drive
June 16, 2011
By Matthew Mainen
In his speech on the Arab Awakening, President Obama not only referenced U.S. revolutionary defiance against the despotic King George III but also Rosa Parks’ catalyzing defiance of U.S. segregation. Yet the administration as well as Congress remain mum on the increasing Rosa Parks-spirited resistance of Saudi women against the monarchy’s gender apartheid, starting with the prohibition against their driving.
In late May, Manal al-Sharif and leading women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider started a trend of Saudi women posting videos of themselves driving on Youtube. Sharif was subsequently detained and only released after pledging to cease promoting disobedience and writing a “thank you letter” to King Abdullah for his leniency. Her original video has subsequently disappeared, but others remain.
Now, a “drive-in” is scheduled for June 17th, in which Saudi women are called upon to defy the monarchy’s ban and get behind the wheel. This move is not unprecedented. On November 6, 1990, 45 women of the educated elite drove into the center of Riyadh. They were quickly arrested, interrogated, released to their “male guardians,” and suspended from their jobs.
Leading Saudi scholar and Cambridge professor Madawi al-Rasheed argues that the dissidents were motivated by a wave of domestic calls for reform brought about by the increased Western spotlight and presence in the monarchy as a result of the Gulf War. The U.S., however, remained silent.
Two decades later, regional circumstances and Western attention again have emboldened Saudi women in demanding their basic rights. The long term success of Saudi women’s rights activists, however, is highly unlikely without a strong U.S. position.
While it is almost certain that Obama will remain silent, hope is not necessarily lost. Congress can play a role through its control of the purse combined with moral pressure. This is routinely exemplified when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, tying funding of the maintenance of U.S. buildings abroad to relocating the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has been waived by the president every sixth month, forcing him to take a public position on the status of Jerusalem.
Congress has also pressured the president on U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Setting aside current cntroversy, Congressman Weiner has singlehandedly campaigned against Saudi Arabia with his proposed Saudi Accountability Act and his successful legislation banning direct aid.
As of yet, the issue of Saudi women, however, has not significantly circulated through Congress. Oddly, even the Congressional Women’s Caucus, from which one would expect the most discussion on the matter, has remained as silent as the president. The caucus has nonetheless seen fit in targeting Iran, where women vote, serve in parliament and yes, even drive.
In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, women are considered incapable creatures demanding the absolute supervision of a male guardian. In addition to driving women are restricted from voting, serving in high public office and various fields and traveling without the permission of a male relative.
One may argue that human rights in Saudi Arabia should take a backseat to the U.S.’ needing to circle its wagons around its so-called “moderate allies” in the name of national security, especially with the imminent collapse of the Yemeni government.
It must be noted, however that Saudi Arabia is the ideological base camp of al-Qaeda, and the best way to defeat terrorism is via liberal victories over oppressive pseudo-Islamic ideologies. How many times has it been said that the war on terror cannot be won militarily?
It is now time for Congress to take a stand. Legislation should be initiated detailing the link between radical ideology, especially as it pertains to human and women’s rights, and terrorism. Once this is established, weapons sales to the monarchy must be prohibited until it takes explicit reformative steps, including allowing women to drive.
It’s unlikely that any legislation will pass without a presidential waiver provision, but this will apply added pressure on President Obama as the 2012 election looms and he risks being attacked for opposing freedom.
More so than any other country, the U.S. stands out for its unwavering democratic ideals, and when 9/11 is referenced, it is often said that freedom itself was attacked. This is not empty rhetoric, but now is the time to determine whether the U.S. stands only for the freedom of the American people or for all people. By taking the decisive step of standing with the women of Saudi Arabia, Congress can send a clear message to the world and reassert American universal values.
Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.