Manal al-Sharif: Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia?

Date:June 2011

Manal al-SharifCould Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who defied the ban on women driving in her country, turn out to be the Rosa Parks of the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia?

In 1955, Parks ignited the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to abide by the segregation law on seating in buses. Last month, al-Sharif, a 32-year-old mother and Internet Security consultant for Aramco, the Saudi oil giant, took a similar courageous stand against the authorities which resulted in her being imprisoned for a week.

Muslim women, myself included, have long drawn inspiration from the heroines in early Islam such as Hazrat Khadija (R.A), Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) first wife, who was a wealthy widow, entrepreneur and supporter of the first Muslim community in Medina. The Prophet’s last wife, Aisha, is yet another role model who led a battle against Ali, the fourth caliph, on the back of a camel in seventh century Arabia.

Why then should Saudi women like Manal al-Sharif not be allowed to drive in the twenty-first century? As NYT columnist Maureen Dowd caustically noted in a recent column, no less a personage than Saudi Arabia’s billionaire prince, Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Arabian Warren Buffett, has hired a woman, born in the holy city of Mecca, and trained her to pilot his private jet.

No less than 500,000 viewers watched al-Sharif’s arrest on Youtube, and 30,000 showed up on Twitter, leading some activists to spearhead street protests on June 17.

Camels and skyscrapers share an uneasy existence in the oil-rich Saudi kingdom, where women are still prohibited from walking in the streets and leaving the country without a mihrim (male guardian).

Mai Yamani Mai Yamani, the author of `Cradle of Islam’, captures the essence of the challenges facing Saudi women in an e-mail she received from a young woman in Mecca at the height of the Egyptian revolution: “Forget about the cries for freedom; I can’t even give birth without being accompanied to hospital by a mihrim (male guardian).

Yamani says Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women to drive cars. “The system of confinement that the ban represents is justified neither by Islamic texts nor by the nature of the diverse society that the Al Saud and their Wahhabi partners’ rule. Indeed, it is far removed even from the rest of the Arab world – which has become glaringly obvious in the context of massive social upheaval almost everywhere else in the region.” I spent some time in Jeddah last year with Samar Fatany, a broadcaster, author and commentator on key issues pertaining to women in Saudi Arabia today, who has called for radical change.


Fatany says: “There are hard-liners who still regard women as intellectually, physically and morally inferior. The society remains male-dominated; men are given absolute power, and male intellectual structures form the basic framework for thought and action…There are many challenges facing the average Saudi family; most obvious of all is the high cost of living Economic necessities and social responsibilities toward our children dictate that the majority of mothers earn a living in order to provide for their families and share in the expenses to afford them a life of dignity and comfort.”

Fatany adds that it’s time for Saudi women to join hands with their sisters in Islam “who seek to end discrimination against women and publicly reclaim Islam’s spirit of justice for all”.

Foreign policy considerations have often led the US to take a less strident stand on Saudi Arabia. However, Hillary Clinton was sufficiently moved to issue a statement in support of those who rallied behind al-Sharif. “What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,’’ said Clinton, “but the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves, seeking to be recognized.”

The opinions mentioned in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Chair, Invest in Muslim Women

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