There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women's rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system.
The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that. The driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women's quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.
My change of heart comes from the fact that it's obvious that well into the 21st century, Saudis are unable and apparently unwilling to solve minor issues like a woman's right to drive an automobile. So what makes me think that we can solve the weightier problems of guardianship and justice in the courts?
Well, we can't. The path Saudi Arabia is taking towards judicial reform and granting women better employment opportunities is questionable. It's a questionable because Manal broke no laws, yet she was arrested in the dead of night on a vague allegation of "violating the public order." She is accused of "violating the rules and the system by driving her car, roaming the streets of the province" and "inciting public opinion" by posting a video of her driving on YouTube.
Clearly it's the Khobar municipal police and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue that have violated the public order. Manal was performing basic tasks as a woman in charge of her household. If that means driving a car to perform those tasks, so be it. By arresting Manal for exercising her rights to perform these chores, the police and commission violated the public order. The public order was further violated because the arrest caused anger among Saudi women who empathize with Manal's attempts shed light on her plight to get around town to take care of her family.
The facts as we know them are that Manal, who possesses an international driver's license as required by Saudi authorities, drove her car. She was wearing a seatbelt, obeyed all traffic laws, wore the hijab and had her brother in the car with her. There is nothing in the Saudi traffic codes about women not permitted to drive. There is nothing un-Islamic about her behavior. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, and long before him, Sheikh Al Al-Bani, said there is no Islamic reason to deny women the right to drive.
By arresting Manal Al-Sherif, Saudi authorities elevated the once trivial debate on women driving to a major issue. King Abdullah in an interview with Barbara Walters, and virtually every Saudi minister from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unequivocally said that women driving is a societal issue. King Abdullah said that only Saudi society could determine the appropriate time when women can drive cars. He said he believed that time was soon.
I gather in this case Saudi society comprises of the religious conservatives who continue to object to this simple right, although there is no religious foundation to prevent women from driving. Manal's brother, the woman who sat in the passenger seat of Manal's car and Manal's family apparently do not qualify as members of Saudi society. Nor does the woman arrested with her two female relatives the other day for driving in the rural province of Al-Ras. And perhaps the Al-Ras arrests are even more troubling than Manal's detention.
For decades, Saudi women living in rural areas have driven cars and trucks to keep food on the table, take children to school and to make sure the family business runs smoothly. It strikes me as odd that the Saudi government gives rural women a free pass, but denies Manal a trip to a Khobar supermarket to put food on her table.
Saudis, however, have no one to blame but themselves. And I wonder whether they even understand the significance of Manal's case. A Saudi male colleague wrote to me the other day that his father's "neighbor refuses every single young man who comes asking for the hand of one of his three daughters in marriage... They should go to court and complain against him but they did not. Isn't (marriage) a more important issue than driving? Why do you, women, insist on driving and forget your other more basic rights?"
Clearly, the right to marry whom one pleases is more important than driving. Yet we have no hope of solving this more significant problem if we can't even agree on the less important ones.
Frankly, I'm ashamed of what happened to Manal. Saudis hold themselves up to ridicule from the global community. Saudi Arabia singed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn't conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations' new women's rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community's embrace of universal women's rights.
It appears we are not even close to that goal.