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21st Century Girl: Alice Xia on Saudi Women’s Drive for Mobility

21 Oct 2010

Alice Xia is a political science major at the University of California, Irvine, concentrating in comparative politics.

Driving: A privilege granted to many teenagers in the U.S. before they even reach the legal age of 18. To us, automobiles provide endless possibilities, and we cease to imagine life in the modern era without this basic tool. To women in Saudi Arabia, driving represents yet another challenge they must overcome, without the support of their husbands, fathers, and brothers.

Tired of a society that continues to subjugate women, individuals such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a 47-year-old divorced mother of two, have used multiple channels to express their discontents. Social protests against inequality — sound exciting? Not to the ears of the Saudi government and press.

A sticker used by We the Women to protest against Saudi Arabia's ban on women drivers.

Al-Huwaider has campaigned against discriminate acts toward women and young girls in her country for more than three years now. On Women’s Day in 2008, she courageously posted a video of her driving on YouTube. This, among other activist work Al-Huwaider has done, sent her into mainstream media — but it was a short-lived fame. The press eventually began to reject her radical pieces; her fight for equal rights was deemed socially unacceptable, especially by many Saudi women. To make matters even worse, her husband (whom she married out of love, and not by force) disapproved so strongly of her “high profile” that he found a second wife.

The social structure in Saudi Arabia is said to reflect Islamic teachings, but where does the Koran mention anything about women and driver’s licenses? Al-Huwaider’s perspective on the drive toward gender equality was likely influenced by her college education in America. It certainly does not represent the holistic opinion of the female population in Saudi Arabia: Last year, an organization of prominent Saudi women led by Saudi Princess Jawaher bint Jalawi rallied under the motto, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best For Me.”

In response, Al-Huwaider has noted:

“They have a lot of fear inside them. You know when you have nothing — no power, no connections — and you are always treated as subhuman, it’s not easy to just stand up and ask for more rights.”

Even if Al-Huwaider is more Western than her fellow Arab women, her general concern for women’s protection is universal; it is not limited to a specific culture or geographical location. Rather than preaching for democracy or some other abstract liberal concept, she is (for now) simply asking for the right to drive a car.

As a young woman living in the 21st century — alas, the title is not deceptive — I am both impressed and disappointed by the trajectory of gender roles. But before someone automatically sticks me with a label like ‘feminazi’, hear me out: I take immense pride in knowing that certain aspects of today’s international community no longer suppresses women the way it did centuries ago. Even when my grandmother was growing up, she never imagined a world only decades into the future where vast social, economic, and political opportunities could be available to females almost everywhere.

What does that mean? We’re doing something right. On the other hand, stories of oppression continue to haunt us and they continue to make headlines. Before we lose our heat and start suffering from sympathy fatigue, let writings like Wajeha Al-Huwaider’s campaigns inspire us and remind us that we can be agents of change.

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