In Saudi Arabia the crack of the gavel meets the crack of dawn. By overturning the sentence of a Saudi woman to 10 lashes for the shameful crime of driving a car September 29, a new era is heralded for the oppressed women of the Arabian Peninsula .
American women take for granted, and sometimes even bemoan, the soccer-mom type need for driving themselves and others around on errands. Yet for years, my Saudi friends in America have held out this commonplace activity as a hope - a distant dream for their homeland.
"What can be done?" I ask. The answer has not been hopeful. In discussions with students and at conferences, Saudi and other Arab women have pointed to the difficulty of making any changes. Although free in the West, once they returned they would again be trapped within the system, unable to get their voices heard, afraid of repercussions, and unable to bring others to their side. The best hope, they said, was twofold: educate women by broadcasting into the Middle East, and expose the situation to the West in hope that they could pressure for change.
Gender discrimination with driving is one of the many women's rights issues which makes Saudi students cast their eyes longingly at immigration to America, rather than return to a homeland of unequal rights. This presents a real quandary. If the women who come west and learn liberty stay here, who will go home and make a difference?
Coming to America seems to impact the thinking of the Middle Eastern men less than its women.
"I don't see how not driving is any problem for women," said one male Saudi student to me in America, "all they have to do is ask one of us and we'll take them."
Hearing young men like him, who are in America but can't get the point of equal rights, I could understand the "hopeless at home" view of the Arab women. They sense that the men return to their country and don't care much about change.
Here's an irony: perhaps it is this very discomfort, the in-your-face inequality that helps women students from the Middle East who come to America to be more open to new ideas.
It is difficult for us to imagine the obstacles -- both internal and external -- which Saudi women face when determining to go against the flow, as with the driving ban. Ostracization and deprivation, possibly beatings and most likely shame will descend on each one of these brave suffragette sisters. The king might also be subjected to recriminations by religious clerics, some of whom will doubtless call him an unworthy ruler.
But over the past year or two there was a hint that society might be softening to the hard line idea that if women could drive they would run right into sin. On top of that came "Arab Spring". Since June, Saudi women have been taking the wheel and to the roads.
This first court sentence and its overturning will doubtless encourage women to express their demands for equal rights in all sorts of domains. Let's hope King Abdullah stands his ground on their behalf come what may. To mandate justice, and when necessary face down the clergy, is a true test of kingship.