Women Fight for their Rights in Saudi Arabia

Posted By Levi

June 12th, 2011 4:31pm

Category: Middle East

(Update below)

The Taliban established one the most repressive governments in modern times. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when the United States invaded the country in response to 911 and overthrew the Taliban government for its support of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda.

The Taliban medieval and twisted interpretation of the Koran resulted in the subjugation of Afghan women in a particularly brutal manner not seen in modern times. Women were secluded in the home and all outside activities were banned. Women were not allowed to go outside unless accompanied by a male relative. Women had to wear a long veil (burqa), which covers them from head to toe; they could not wear high heel shoes; they could not use cosmetics (many women with painted nails had their fingers cut off); they were whipped in public for not covering their ankles and they were stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage. Here is a long list of Taliban rules that affected women.

For 10 years now we have been fighting a war in Afghanistan partly to prevent the Taliban from coming to power once again and restoring their brutal policies. But what is not so well known is that women are subjected to some of these same polices in Saudi Arabia. Like Afghanistan under the Taliban, women in Saudi Arabia are treated like children and are denied basic rights. Women cannot drive, cannot go outside the home without a male relative accompanying them, they cannot vote or be elected to high political positions. Yet, the United States rarely raises its voice against these Taliban-like policies and Saudi Arabia remains our strongest ally in the Arab world.

The Nation recently interviewed  Wajeha al-Huwaider,  perhaps the best-known Saudi campaigner for women’s rights, human rights and democracy. She is a strong supporter of the June 17 Movement, which calls on Saudi women to start driving on that date, and made the celebrated YouTube video of its co-founder, Manal al-Sherif, jailed for nine days in May for driving.


Why the driving protests? And why now?

The issue of women drivers has remained unresolved since the driving protests of 1990. Just before the launching of the June 17 campaign, a group of well-known women and men signed a letter to the Shura, or Consultative Assembly, asking to reopen the discussion. It was rejected. That was the spark for the current protest of Manal and the other women. The issue never goes away.

Isn’t it strange that Saudi women can’t be alone with an unrelated man-except their driver?

Our rulers are willing to break their own laws to keep women isolated. In another country, a woman with a driver would look privileged-here, the message is that she is weak and untrustworthy. That kind of attitude travels down the generations-even after women get the right to drive it will take years to get rid of it.

In most Muslim countries, even monarchies like Morocco, women have more social freedom and legal rights than in Saudi Arabia. Why is Saudi Arabia so committed to repressing women?

Actually they are committed to repressing everybody-men, women, Saudis, non-Saudis. That’s why religious police are on the streets harassing and arresting people. Young men are beaten just for having long hair. But the police are more brutal with women, because women are half the society, and they raise the other half. So repressing and instilling fear in women is the most effective way to control the whole society.  Here is progress, Saudi-style: the Shura has just recommended that women be allowed to vote but not run in local elections, and the king decreed that women and only women can sell women’s lingerie.

President Obama has praised the uprisings in the Arab world, but the United States is firm friends with the Saudi government, despite its flagrant violations of human rights, lack of democracy and so on. What do you make of that?

I have never expected any of the Western world leaders to talk about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and they’ve lived up to my expectations. The West needs our oil and we don’t “need anything” from them. I learned to live with that bitter reality a long time ago.


If you are interested, I just finished reading a great book on Saudi Arabia – Inside The Kingdom; Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Stuggle for Saudi Arabia by Robert Lacey.

Update (6/13/11: The New York Times today has an op-ed on the topic by  By FARZANEH MILANI entilted Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders.”

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