Amy Levin: Thanks to some Saudi women who Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has cautiously called “brave,” the “Arab Spring” is shifting gears this summer. A coalition of female and male women’s rights activists called Saudi Women for Driving began an effort in April to grant women the right to drive in the streets of Saudi Arabia. While several media outlets refer to the effort as defiance against a “driving ban,” in fact there is no law prohibiting women from driving. Rather, it is a long-held social custom, overlaid with religious justifications by ultraconservative Islamic scholars who argue that women driving is the first step to their society’s loss of its Islamic identity.
The coalition gained media attention last Friday, June 17th, when close to 50 women with either foreign or international driver’s licenses drove around Riyadh. According to Aljazeera, the act was reminiscent of an effort 20 years ago when 47 Saudi women got behind the wheel in Riyadh; many were arrested and subsequently lost their jobs. Keeping with recent protest tactics in the Middle East, Saudi Women for Driving encouraged the effort through social media outlets like facebook, twitter, and YouTube, marketing it as the women2drive campaign.
Also driving media attention is Manal al-Sharif’s arrest on May 21st after posting a YouTube video of herself driving in solidarity with the effort. While King Abdullah’s decree to release al-Sharif gives some Saudi women hope that the country is on the road to reform, others are skeptical of any real change coming from an ultra-conservative monarchy.
But this isn’t really a case of oppressed Muslim women simply seeking to break out of social constraints, as media has predominantly reported it. After a brief flash of Western media attention on her support of Saudi women’s right to drive, Reem Al Faisal, a Saudi photographer, blogged on Arab news that that she was “saddened and disappointed” by the rare attention. Al Faisal writes, “It seems to me that we in the Arab world are constantly being put in boxes filled by clichés. We are heard or noticed in the West only when we conform to or appear in those convenient images the West has made of us in its collective mind.”
Al Faisal observes that while she normally blogs about marginalization and oppression in the Middle East, she is noticed only when she writes about Saudi women’s issues.
While she doesn’t necessarily explain why this is a cliché’, I think we get her point. As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11th, how many Western feminists are still waiting for Afghan women to tear off their hijabs?
In other words, Al Faisal is reporting on the structural violence and inequality of global politics, but we (the West) continue to pay attention only to liberal signs of freedom; those we can easily recognize and digest. Stories of Saudi women making themselves present in public, defying the control of men, and using modern technology contain just enough familiar liberation imagery to fuel the mainstream media. Which may be why Clinton so adamantly claims that “this is not about the United States.” Perhaps she is avoiding collision with Saudi Arabia, or perhaps she is steering her feminist sensibility a bit better than we think.