Wajeha Al-Huwaider -- Fighting for Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

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By Wajeha Al-Huwaider
Sunday, August 16, 2009

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia Who is that woman who returns day after day to the border crossing, seeking to pass from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, only to be turned away? She is me.

Who am I? A native of the city of Hufuf in eastern Saudi Arabia, where the world's best dates are grown, a 47-year-old divorced mother of two teenage sons, and an employee of the vast Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco.

I am not a dangerous person, so why do they turn me away? Because I refuse to present a document signed by my male "guardian," giving his permission for me to travel. And why do I do that?

I possess such a document, but it is humiliating to have to produce it, and I am tired of being humiliated solely because I am a woman. So I have decided to try to leave my country without following the rules. I have urged other Saudi women to do likewise, and in recent weeks several have.

Everyone knows that women are denied rights in Saudi Arabia. And you may think that our fate is the same one that women in some other developing countries face, only a little worse. In truth, we endure a status that most Americans can scarcely imagine.

The guardianship rules are only part of a bigger system of subjugating women. Even with the permission of a guardian, a woman may not drive a car (except in some isolated rural areas and within the compounds that are home to many workers from Western countries). Obviously, there is nothing in the Koran that forbids driving. No, the reason we are not allowed to drive is that the power to transport ourselves would give men much less control over us.

So, one of my other campaigns has been for the right to drive. Last year on International Women's Day I posted a video on YouTube of myself driving a car. It was filmed by another woman sitting in the passenger's seat. I explained that many Saudi women who have lived abroad have driver's licenses from other countries and would be happy to volunteer to teach our sisters how to drive. (That way they would not have to be alone in a car with a male driving instructor, lest terrible things happen.) This video has received more than 181,000 hits.

Earlier this year, while visiting my two sons at boarding school in Virginia (I send them there because I do not want them to grow up to be typical Saudi men), I staged a demonstration in front of a car dealership in Woodbridge. I addressed a message to U.S. automakers: Saudi women want to buy your cars (and many can afford to). But first, you must support our fight for the right to drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia may not go out without an abaya, an ugly black cloak that we have to wear on top of our regular clothes. You can imagine how great that feels in 100-degree heat. Saudi men, on the other hand, always wear white. In 2006, I dressed in pink when I staged a one-person protest march. It was the anniversary of the ascent of King Abdullah to the throne. By Saudi standards, Abdullah is a liberal, but he has not done nearly enough to change our situation. So I made a simple sign: "Give women their rights."

I started in Bahrain. I had a taxi drive me to the border. After crossing to the Saudi side I pulled out my sign and marched along the causeway from the island nation to the Saudi mainland. After 20 minutes, a police car pulled up and officers arrested me. After a day of interrogation in the police station, the cops were prepared to release me. But of course they couldn't release me into my own custody. I had to phone my younger brother to come act as my guardian.

Women are not allowed to participate in sports. How could you in an abaya? When I was very young, I was a tomboy. I loved to ride a bike, which my mother allowed, although most girls are forbidden because this activity might cost them their "virginity" by rupturing the hymen. When I was 7, my teacher tied my legs and beat me with a stick when she learned that I had been playing soccer with boys. Then she made me sit at my desk all day, without going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water.

While women are forced to be entirely dependent on men, men are allowed to follow their whims. A woman can get a divorce, but only by going through a laborious legal procedure in religious court. However, a man can divorce his wife merely by saying "I divorce you" three times. Although this is an ancient practice, these days the clerical authorities are debating whether the man has to say this in person, or if a text message will suffice. Already a judge in Jiddah has approved the first case of text-message divorce. The man was in Iraq to participate in jihad.


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