Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak’s views that declare giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God’s wrath. In fact, “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”
The YouTube video posted by a Saudi woman filming herself while driving brought into limelight, once again, the issue of women’s rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 32 year old Manal al-Sharif has been campaigning for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for many years now, but this stunt of hers was a lot more than the authorities had bargained for.
Her driving and the subsequent arrest also exploded onto social networking websites such as Facebook, which boasts the support of 19,000 users (and counting) for the group called ‘We are all Manal al-Sharif: a call for solidarity with Saudi women’s rights’. And now, 17th of June has been named the day of civil disobedience in the Kingdom, with the plan being that women across Saudi Arabia will get behind the wheel to demand the right to drive.
This isn’t the first time women have tried to defy the driving ban. In the 1990s, a group of around 40 women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars to call attention to the issue. There were some arrests, others had their passports confiscated, and the intimidation paid off.
The state’s approach toward women and their rights has been based on the Salafi ideology, a hint of which is reflected in Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak’s views that declare giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God’s wrath. In fact, “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”
The reaction that this incident has prompted from Saudi state and religious authorities is a stark reminder of how the Salafis ideology, supported and promoted by the Kingdom, has been institutionalized within the Gulf powerhouse. Manal’s act of defiance and the support it has garnered from the population within Saudi Arabia is a direct challenge to the house of Saud, its legitimacy which it derives from the backing of these very Salafis Muftis, and the equilibrium the ruling elites have struck between religious conservatism and economic development.
Let it not be missed that this movement, as social networking sites clearly state, is not a revolution, with its slogan being, ‘I just want to drive’. Indeed, this is not a revolution like the ones that we’ve seen rocking the Middle East and North Africa. However, it is impossible to deny that this movement has been inspired by the fruits of the Arab Spring: a renewed faith in the civil society and what it is capable of achieving when coupled with the tools at our disposal, thanks to technological and scientific advancements of the modern world.
It is a cry from an overlooked, undermined, and under-invested part of the Saudi society that wants to participate equally within the socio-political constructs of the country it belongs to. It is not a challenge to the role religion plays within society, but a call for a more moderate interpretation of religious laws. It cannot escape one’s notice that the logic upon which Salafis base their ban on women driving has been largely rejected by Muslim scholars from around the world, including some within the Kingdom. Participation of women has been encouraged in Islam and has even played an integral role in the history of the religion. Current Saudi woman wants the same.
There aren’t any calls for the downfall of the Saudi regime or an end to the monarchy, but it is a threat to structure of religious hierarchy within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which Salafi Muftis have continue to enjoy a very influential position, dictating and controlling the way the country’s social fabric has so far developed.
What will happen on the 17th of June remains to be seen. Will the House of Saud consider this a challenge to its authority or a call for socio-political advancement of the country is anyone’s guess. But Abdullah will be wise to react with caution, as the suppression of rational demands can build up and explode, just as we witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.