Update: Mariam arrest was at 10:30 pm not am
Translated by Wafa Al-Lawati
“I didn’t ask for much. I’m only asking to be safe in my own home country?” Mariam Alotaibi, Saudi activist, and domestic violence survivor
The day is Monday, 17th April 2017
It’s 10:30 pm
Location: Nassiriya- Riyadh
Finally, it was a quiet evening. Her body and face are covered in her black veil, Mariam sat behind her cashier screen. It has been a week since she started her job as a cashier despite her bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that she’s finally independent at the age of 29. A mature, responsible adult, despite the legal papers that have declared her nothing but a “minor”.
Two men and a woman they called the “prison guard” entered the place.
“Are you Mariam al Otaibi?” They asked
“Get up and walk with us now, you’re wanted”
“Why? What’re the charges against me?”
“There’s a runway report against you. We’re ordered to return you home”
“My home is here in Riyadh. I transferred last week, I work here and I’m not going back to my family’s house”
Mariam was arrested, publicly, like she’s a wanted criminal who ran away. Her house keys in Riyadh were confiscated. The whole house was searched and her personal belongings, including her cell phone and her laptop and even her clothes, were confiscated! In the interrogation room, they mentioned her father filed a “runway report” against her. And that she’ll be sent to Al Rass jail in AlQaseem, but Mariam is still in al Malaz jail in Riyadh, under investigation.
Her cellphone and laptop are with the Investigation and Public Prosecutor Authority in Riyadh.
Why was Mariam arrested in her workplace and accused of running away? Why, in the matter of few days, did the charges against her change to “disruption of public order”? Who is Mariam? And what’s her story?
Mariam Nasser Khalaf Al Otaibi lived a happy peaceful life with her family, until three years ago, when her brother (M.) who’s one year younger than her, begun to enforce strict rules on them, claiming he’s “cleansing” the house. He even incited their younger brother, Yousuf, to join the ISIS, which he did in 2013 when he was 22 years old. Three months later, an ISIS fighter announced Yousuf has died in one of the Syrian army’s strikes, he posted Yousuf’s passport photo and information on his twitter account. Their distant family cut all relations with Mariam’s family once they heard the news about the brother.
Became a threatening screaming monster, “I will cleanse the martyr’s (Yousuf) house” he said. Mariam stood bravely against his extremism and received threats, beatings and physical abuse in return. M. Went on threatening their father, who’s their legal “guardian” (with the reservation over the term considering she’s an adult), to be more assertive, even abusive, with the girls, or he’ll join ISIS, too.
After an anguish physical abuse, Mariam finally reported her brother in Alrass police department, providing a hospital medical report as evidence. M. Was asked to sign a pledge. And Mariam had to return to her abuser’s house and endure more threats and emotional abuse. She went through great pressure from her father and threats from her brother to withdraw her police report. She continued to receive threats from M., including text messages filled with defamation and murder threats. She didn’t have another choice but to file another report, with the text messages as evidence, but sadly, Mariam was returned to the same house.
Mariam found a safe haven on twitter to document her case @Mariam_al3teebe, she wrote about the domestic abuse she endured and the injustice she faced from the official authorities, she was faced with accusations of lying and having a fake account, which resulted in her posting a photo of her passport as evidence. This drove her abuser mad, demanding she stops writing on twitter and deletes the photo of her passport, which included a personal photo showing her face, in my country you should stay silent, disappear from existence so the family’s honor remains intact. M. instigated their father to press “disobedience” charges against Mariam if she does not withdraw her two cases. She refused to give up her cause and her right. Under all these circumstances a helpless woman undergoes without a law to protect her.
In November 2016, during all these problems she received a call from Alrass Police claiming it is regarding her defamation and threats case. She headed over to the police department, and in a shock, she was arrested and detained in the women’s jail, charged with “disobedience” which her father has filed against her. The story became popular on twitter, inciting the public opinion, the abused girl who went to jail while her abuser remains free. A few days later she was released and brought back to her abuser’s house, for the third time.
Mariam did not stop writing and looking for an outlay from her house all this time, I’ve had direct contact with her! I was shocked how the Saudi Human Rights Association and all the other organizations she sought abandoned her. Everyone told her it’s a “family matter” and they can’t intervene.
Six months after her release from Alrass prison, she managed to get an accommodation and a job as a cashier in Riyadh. She packed her little belongings and left her house with no return.
“if life is not fair to me, I will be fair to myself and leave this torture.” She left a message behind to her father saying, “I’ve left the house for you, forever, I hope you will leave me alone”
We go back to Mariam now, in the interrogation room in Riyadh. Asking the investigator (F.N.A)
“What’s the case against me?”
“Running away from home”
“I won’t go back”
“oh, seems you’ll stay with us for a long time”
Mariam told her about the reasons she left the house, and the abuse she endured from her brother and father. The investigator refused to add this information to the case report. Mariam asked him to write her workplace address and her residence in her apartment in Riyadh, he refused and insisted on writing her family’s house as her residence. After a long argument, he only added her workplace.
Mariam stayed in the Malaz prison for many days, during which she didn’t stop asking about her charges. Finally, they told her it’s “absence of her father’s house and her activism activities on Twitter”
A number of Saudi women activists were able to find a lawyer (A. M.) to represent her. After looking at the case file, which belonged to the “Disruption of Public Order in Riyadh” unit, registry number 41529, the lawyer disappeared after knowing the change in the case against her.
Mariam is still in prison. A try to deny her right of choosing her fate and living independently. Mariam’s case today is one of many witnesses against the injustice Saudi women have to endure in our country. Mariam’s case speaks loudly, giving a voice for thousands of forgotten stories that didn’t have Twitter to tell it to us.
What should you do to stop the injustice?
- Change your profile picture to #IStandwithMariam
- Use the hashtag #IStandwithMariam and spread Mariam’s story now
Freedom to Mariam and all the women in my country.
*The story is as told to me by her own relatives through Mariam herself
Saudi Arabia comes come second only to Iran in using the power of the stick (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or the religious police) to impose a particular form and color of hejab on all our women. And when I say all our women, I mean all: Saudi and non-Saudi, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
The sheer size of the country means that each and every region of Saudi Arabia contains a great diversity of cultures, dialects and religious sects. Until the seventies, women here were free to wear almost whatever they wanted. Bedouin women wore bright clothes and burqas, the parting of their hair and their kohl-lined eyes left exposed. The women of the city donned their abayas, the fabric drawn in around their waists. The Arab women wore their colored hejabs, and the non-Muslim women dressed modestly and without a veil.
The women in my father’s village, Tarfa, to the north-west of Mecca, wore bright clothes with pink and white scarves wrapped around their heads and necks. Like the Bedouins, they left their faces and the parting of their hair exposed.
This all changed when the state-supported wave of religious fanaticism struck our society. The black abaya and facial covering was imposed on all female government employees, and on schools and universities. And the black hejab was imposed on all non-Saudi women, regardless of their religion or creed. It was unthinkable to see a woman in my hometown, Mecca, who did not wear the niqab; revealing your face was a social taboo and was haram in the eyes of religion. Leaflets were widely distributed during that era saying that facial covering was what separated the Muslim woman from the infidel. The fanaticism spread even to children: even before I took off my niqab for good, a ten-year-old-girl next to me on a plane called me an “infidel” when I lifted my veil to eat a meal.
One leaflets distributed during the period of Islamic awakening read:
“My Muslim sister; today, you face a relentless and cunning war waged by the enemies of Islam with the purpose of reaching you and removing you from your impenetrable fortress. One of the things that these enemies of Islam are trying to discredit and eliminate is the hejab. Some of them even said that the situation in the East would not be righted until the hejab had been raised from the woman’s face and used to cover the Koran!”
This same ideology was exported out of Saudi Arabia by the power of the petrodollar. I remember the days of the Bosnian war (1992—1995), when Saudi Arabia sent convoys of aid to those besieged in Sarajevo. The people in charge of the convoys distributed the hejab to the besieged women along with the cartons of food.
It came to the point where the only acceptable interpretation of Islamic hejab in Saudi was for woman to shroud her face and body completely in black. Though, to anyone from outside our borders, one Saudi woman appeared utterly indistinguishable from the next, Saudis developed a unique ability to recognize the woman who languished in the blackness. My father knew me apart from the dozens of other girls outside the school or university walls; he never mixed me up with another girl. Similarly, we never failed to recognize our relatives or friends if we came across them in the mall or mosque.
We developed a great sensitivity to the characteristics and attributes of those around us: their voices, the way they arranged their niqab, their eyes, their gait, and even the type of abaya and handbag and shoe they wore. And young men developed a sense for the age of a girl and her physique, purely from the way she walked.
After that came the nineties, which brought with it satellite channels, and after that the turn of the millennium, which heralded the evolution of new forms of communication: the internet and smart phones. At last we had access to views that challenged the status quo—the single opinion that had so long been presented to us as the only correct choice. It was the only one, we were told, which follows the way of the Prophet and truly represents Islam. Our conservative society began to posit questions and raise doubts about things that had—by the power of religion and with the blessing of the state—been so long imposed on us as givens.
One of the first things to be questioned was the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of hejab, but for me personally, that didn’t make the matter any easier. When I decided to remove the niqab in 2002, I faced a bitter war with my family and society. My mother wore the niqab during the period of the Islamic awakening, and though she relinquished it on our travels outside Saudi, she opposed the fact that I had taken it off at home. The reason was social, not religious: “My daughter, no one will marry you if you show your face!”
If the people I passed on the streets of Mecca knew me to be a Saudi, I’d face harsh and disapproving looks. One day I was performing tawaf, and the observer—whose job was to regulate the movements of people around the Kaaba—berated me loudly about my lack of niqab every time I passed him. “Cover your face, woman!” he shouted. The third time, I used my finger to indicate the people around me: “All these women with uncovered faces; are they disobedient too? Or is it only me that’s sinning, because I am Saudi?” I completed the rest of my circuits without hearing another word.
Though I didn’t wear the niqab in the street or in my place of work, I had to borrow a friend’s niqab to enter the courtroom, since women were not allowed to enter government facilities—courts in particular—with their faces uncovered. I was forced to bring two male “identity verifiers” to assert who I was, despite the fact that I carried my ID card with me.
While the uncovering of women’s faces might have been the biggest change to happen to Saudi society, it wasn’t the only one women dared to make. A group of girls in Jeddah began to wear colored abayas; soon, robes in grey, navy blue and dark brown could be seen in the city’s abaya shops. When these same colors began to appear in Riyadh, the religious police launched a campaign of confiscating them from the shops. “If this was their reaction to brown and grey,” I wondered, “how would they react to the sight of pink or red?” I wanted to try it out.
I went to the shop I usually dealt with and asked if they could make me a colorful abaya, but the owner flatly refused: “If a colored abaya was seen in my shop, I would be questioned and harassed by the men of the religious police!” But my friends pointed me to one of the shops that was happy to custom-make colorful designs and deliver them to its customers out of sight of the religious police.
The other change was in the symbolism of the abaya—its significance was no longer of a religious and social nature only. Rather, it came to be treated wholly as a fashion item, with trends that came and went over time just as with any other item of clothing. We saw the emergence of fashion designers who specialized in creating abayas. They held fashion shows to promote their latest lines.
Depending on the fame of the designer, the quality of the fabric and the materials used in the embroidery, the prices could be as high as tens of thousands of riyals apiece. Different types of abaya emerged for different occasions: the abaya intended for work or for going to the mall was characterized by its practicality, and the abayas for special occasions were characterized by their embroidery and luxurious design. There were even abayas for winter and summer.
In spite of all these changes, the force of the state continued to impose the black abaya in public. Advocates claimed that it helped to preserve virtue and to affirm the application of Sharia law. What they conveniently overlooked was that the imposition of a certain type of dress on one section of the population was a precedent that had never before been set in the whole of the country’s history. The form and color of clothes had long been left to the society to decide for themselves, and the authorities had cared little about how it looked as long as it was decent.
The imposition of the black abaya is unnatural: it represents nothing but an obstruction on normal life and on the natural evolution that occurs in people’s manner and form of dress, something that has occurred throughout history on the basis of people’s needs and changing circumstances.
Manal al Sharif was arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia and is one of the Kingdom’s most famous women’s rights activists
التدوينة بالعربي هنا:
In El Madrigal stadium and during Barcelona’s game against Villarreal in the Spanish Liga, Barcelona was ahead by a score of 3/2, dark skinned Brazilian player Daniel Alves was getting ready for a corner kick when a Villarreal fan threw a banana at him.
Danny’s reaction was utterly simple; he picked up the banana, took a bite, threw away the rest of it and continued playing. But for the Sports scene worldwide, that bite didn’t go by that simply, and unleashed bottled up anger and resentment against racism in sports.
Alves’ banana coincided with another incident in the US; a leaked phone call between Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA team Los Angeles Clippers, and his girlfriend. Sterling was asking her not to appear in public with colored athletes, including NBA legend Magic Johnson
As I’m writing this from Rio de Janeiro, I was able to personally feel the Brazilians’ anger at this insult. Famous Brazilian football player, Neymar, appeared on TV eating a banana to show his support for his colleague, and launching the “Somos todos macacos” or “We’re all monkeys” campaign. The campaign gained enormous support, nationwide and worldwide, and even Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff participated, as well as many celebrities worldwide. Daniel Alves appeared on the cover of Veja, the most prominent magazine in Brazil, giving the “banana gesture”, which means (I don’t care) or (go to hell).
The Villarreal fan who threw the infamous banana was arrested, and turned out to be an employee of Villarreal. He was fired and banned from working for the club for life, and may even face up to three years of jail time for promoting racism. Donald Sterling faces a 2.5 million-dollar-fine, the largest ever in the history of sports in the US, as well as pressure from the NBA and other team owners, which will inevitably force him to sell the L.A. Clippers.
The same week the world has shown zero tolerance for racism in the international sports scene, there was a similar incidence back home. After the Saudi team Al-Ahly was defeated in the final match of the King’s Cup, Ahly player and Saudi national team captain, Tayseer Al-Jassem, a Shiite, was the victim of racist attack from Ahly fans.
Tayseer Al-Jassem walked out of the field in tears, and his brother stated that he might not continue playing for Ahly, and would play in the Qatari league instead. Tayseer is one of the most prominent Saudi football players, and is well known for his good morals and discipline. Al-Jassem has been a target for racist attacks for while now, as I noticed from his twitter account, which he quite abandoned since October 2012, because of the depressing racial comments following his every tweet.
A radical anti-Shiite channel, broadcast from Saudi Arabia, Al-Wessal, aired an episode called “Agents of Iran”, during which Sheikh Ghazi Al-Fareeqa launched an attack on Tayseer Al-Jassem, saying: “It’s shocking for me to see a leading Shiite football player amongst his fans, who curses our Mother Aisha, but instead cheer for him. As for me, I trust more in the faith of a drug dealer who refuses to curse our mother Aisha -than him- And the fans, even if they don’t fulfill God’s every order, are good, faithful Sunnis”.
The channel still broadcasts, our national newspapers didn’t run the sectarian statements, and no reaction was to be heard from Al-Ahly management against their racist fans, and not even an apology to their captain was issued. There was no formal, or even informal, reaction from the General Presidency for Youth Welfare.
Up till now, we don’t have a law in Saudi that incriminates racism, not even in sport. Yet there’s a hope; Saudis on Twitter started a group of hashtags that apologize to Tayseer Al-Jassem and denounce racism, most famous was (We’re all Tayseer).
One tweep wrote: “Tayseer’s foot is more useful to this country than your wasted brain cells, and his shoe is cleaner than your vile tongues”.
This hashtag is still active, and it has forced Al-Wessal channel to tweet in defense, apologizing to Tayseer.
Ironically, though, one of its tweets says: “Wessal’s main goal is to attract and convert the general Shiite population, saving them from hell. Badmouthing one of them means destruction for the channel and its message”. Typical the epitome of pride and monopolizing the truth.
My only comment here is to remind you of a story that happened in Munich last May. One of Bayern Munich Muslim players made a formal request for the club management, asking to appoint a room for prayer. The club responded by largely financing the establishment of a large mosque in its headquarters. It’s sad to compare the state of tolerance the world sports scene, to our own near-sightedness, at the heart of the Islamic world.
The renowned Palestinian Muslim scholar Sheikh Adnan Ibrahim said once, in his speech “The Fiqh of Criminals”, or the Criminal Islamic jurisprudence:
“May Allah avenge us from those sheikhs and clerics who spread hatred amongst Muslims, and plant spite in our hearts against the whole world, calling them heretics, infidels and enemies of Allah. We now deny Allah’s blessings; you live there, in Western countries, enjoy your peace, eat off their tax-payers’ money, and then the first chance you get, you go: (I’ll kill & butcher them). What religion is this? What fiqh? It’s the fiqh of criminals. Those are people who lost their humanity in the name of religion. Whose religion is this? Genghis Khan’s? It’s definitely not the religion of the Holy Qur’an that says; (And we have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the whole world). What’s this craziness we live in? O’ Allah, we denounce them, for they’ve wronged themselves, their religion, and prophet Muhammad”.
Every time I leave the country, as I stand before the passport control officer in his usual military attire, I hold my breath on two accounts. My first fear is that a travel ban – an oft-received punishment by people like me, human rights advocates – will see me sent directly back home again.
My second is that my father, my assigned male guardian according to Saudi law, decides to revoke the travel permission he granted me. I can envision my father doing this either out of fear for my own safety or else as a response to the ongoing pressure he receives from people around him or from our al Sharif tribe. It’s strange the way that other countries punish activism with exile, yet in Saudi it’s the other way around: those who protest the system are doomed with internal exile! There is a well-known saying timidly mumbled by Saudis amongst themselves:
“The best place in Saudi is the airport through which I leave the country”.
The moment the passport control officer stamps my passport, an indescribable feeling rushes through my veins. The cage door is open; I’m a free bird once again. But how can one’s own country be a punishment in and of itself?
I could list tens of reasons, but personally I find that the agony of living in duplicity tops them all. The saying I quoted above reveals a lot about the forced duplicitous nature of the Saudi people’s existence: adhering to the the abnormally extreme societal and religious restraints imposed on them on the one hand, and living a normal life – or the life they want to live – on the other.
What follows is a list of just a few examples of duplicity in modern-day Saudi Arabia:
1- Although cinemas are banned in Saudi by law/fatwa, there are more than 170 cinemas in Saudi Arabia. All of them are located in residential compounds that Saudis cannot enter. Now add to that the huge Mega and Virgin stores that sell movies on DVDs, not to mention the fact that most prominent satellite Arab channels are owned and run by Saudi money.
2- Although alcohol is also banned in Saudi, it’s not difficult to find local alcohol dealers who will deliver whatever your heart desires to the privacy of your own home.
3- There are more than 10 million non-Saudis living in Saudi. Everyone knows that they come from different religions (Christianity, Hinduism, etc.) but when it comes to official numbers, Saudi authorities insist that the Saudi Arabia’s population is 100% Muslim.
4- Saudi law bans women from traveling without a Mahram (a male relative that woman cannot marry). But a woman can travel without a Mahram as long as if her “guardian in charge” gives his written permission! Similarly, when it comes to the issue of women driving, fatwas ban women from being alone with a non-mahram even if he is her cousin or brother-in-law. Yet, it is entirely expected that she will use a non-mahram driver.
As a Saudi woman, I am forced to live double the duplicity just to survive. When I got a job offer from Saudi Aramco back in 2002, my family had to guard the fact that their daughter worked in a mixed environment and that I lived alone 850 miles away from the “surveillance” of any male guardian.
Saudi Aramco was the first company in the Kingdom to have men and women work together in the same office space. According to the previous Saudi labor Law, a mixed work environment was prohibited. The new labor law that was passed in 2005 (3 years after I joined Aramco) annulled that particular regulation. It also annulled the rule that required women to have a male guardian’s permission in order to work; nevertheless, most employers in Saudi still require it. I remember the first thing a friend said to me when she found out that I worked in a mixed environment: “You will never get married”. The irony: I married a Saudi co-worker, whom I later divorced.
Hypocrisy is also very useful when dealing with impractical and sometimes absurd laws. Take the Ministry of Higher Education as an example. There are now over 27,500 female students participating in the King Abdullah international scholarship program. My elder sister, a doctor, was one of them, until they stopped her scholarship benefits two years ago. The reason? She was not accompanied by a male family member while studying abroad. Ministry of Higher Education official statistics show that half of applicants to the program are females, but the number who are actually eligible is reduced dramatically by their inability or unwillingness to comply with this bizarre requirement, which authorities argue is based on Islamic fatwa. Those who have basic knowledge of Sharia (Islamic law) know that only one of the four Sunna scholars considers a Mahram (companion) to be a mandatory requirement for a female traveling abroad. So a male companion while residing in another country is not required!
Female students come up with creative workarounds to be able to study abroad. Some marry (on paper) just for the sake of having a male companion, and when they travel abroad, each of the marital partners leads their own life until the program is finished. Other female students take the male companion for the first few weeks to finish the paperwork and show a face at the Cultural Attaché office.
When I was detained in 2011 and sent to jail for being a woman driving a car, I met Hana, a 26-year-old woman who was waiting for more than a year for her male guardian to bail her out. Even when a Saudi woman prisoner has served her sentence, she cannot be released until her appointed male guardian has bailed her out. I brought Hana’s issue to the jail warden’s attention. He told me he was aware of her problem, a common one when the girl’s family is ashamed by her and refuse to accept her back, and that he was in the process of finding her a husband to bail her out! I couldn’t believe my ears!
Officials say that they are applying Sharia laws, while clerics say that they are protecting customs and traditions. At the same time, society enshrines customs and traditions, while laws codify them. It is all becoming a big mishmash where you have no clue who is responsible and who is to blame for the enforced living of a double life or for Saudi’s attempts to build an Islamic Utopia on behalf of the whole Muslim world, even when a large number of us are just pretending rather than genuinely believing in it. I once read a funny comment on this polemic situation: “Saudi authorities solve the world’s problems with money, and Saudi problems with fatwas”.
Hypocrisy in the Saudi system extends from officials to its religious establishment, with a knock-on effect in its society.. The infamous Saudi cleric Al Arifi, who happens to be the most followed Arab on Twitter, is the perfect embodiment of the religious establishment’s dilemma: it must strike a balance between preserving its grip on the Saudi society, which it does through rigid interpretation and intolerance to difference, such as the Shia’a, whilst simultaneously gaining acceptance from an international community that does not welcome displays of intolerance. Al Arifi is known for tweeting opinions of hate against the Shia’a in the Middle East, and encouraging Saudi youth to go for jihad in Syria against the infidel Alawi. Surprisingly, however, all those views were overturned on his last visit to London. The headlines about his visit went something like this: “Al Arifi calls Sunna and Shia’a to unite and renounce differences”!!
Living a double life creates so much pressure on those forced to do so., You get a sense of this when reading Saudi tweets, the only podium where we can voice our views. The tweets usually revolve around three things:
1- Harsh criticism of one another and extreme curiosity about others’ personal lives. People show off the superiority of their own faith by questioning the conduct of others..
2- Harsh attacks against Shia’a and anyone who is different. If you are different, then you are our enemy, even if your opinion is the only thing that is different about you.
3- Harsh attacks on anyone who dares to question clerics or challenge a status quo.
Surprisingly, Saudis who live abroad seldom tweet about such issues! Or if they do, at least not in such harsh way. Maybe because they are relieved from the daily pressure we face within Saudi that causes everyone to get on your nerves as a result of the slightest interaction.
I have always wondered how to end the agony of living two lives, following two standards, being two-faced… It has to start with the people in power; here I mean the government and the religious establishment, and I am witnessing some progress. The government uses religion to control people, but when religion tries to control the government, things don’t go so smoothly. When the religious establishment tried to stop women from being part of the Shura Council in September 2011, for example, the government completely ignored their demands.
It was a big debate in Saudi, probably the second biggest after the debate on women driving. The same religious establishment that is known for resisting almost every new thing that arrives in Saudi ends up making heavy use of that thing almost every time. TV, radio, women’s education, satellite dishes, internet, camera phones and social media, to name a few. The excuse is always that they are using it for a good cause. But the truth is that people obey at the start and boycott, then with time, you find everyone using what was initially declared haram.
I see more and more Saudis, especially the young ones, stand up for what they believe in, even if it earns them a great deal of criticism and attacks. I see them challenge the once-unchallengeable, mostly when they come back from abroad and start realising the comparisons. For me it’s a baby step, but this is how babies learn to walk! One day, when my daughter makes decisions about her major in school, whether or not to wear hijab, the husband she wishes to marry, the movie she wants to watch in the cinema, I will know she will not feel what I feel every time I leave Saudi. Because she will be as true to herself there as she is anywhere else in the world!
Published April 18, 2014
Every time I meet someone from outside Saudi Arabia, the conversation always ends in the same question: “How long do you think it will be before women in Saudi are allowed to drive?”
I wish I had a simple answer for this issue, which should, by basic human rights, be much less complex than it is. But before I address this, I will answer another common question: “Why don’t – or rather can’t – women drive in Saudi Arabia?”
In fact, the Saudi government has never issued a royal decree stipulating the ban, nor even imposed a system. (In Saudi Arabia, there are systems rather than laws: from a religious point of view, laws are considered to be in violation of Shari’ah, because they come from a human perspective).
The ban is merely based on the Ministry of Interior, which was issued in 1990 in response to the first women’s movement demanding the right to drive. The decree, which forbids women to drive on Saudi Arabian territory, did not specify a punishment.
It was reasserted by the Ministry on October 25, 2013, one day before the date on which Saudi women had chosen to launch a third driving campaign which is still held on a monthly basis.
As represented in statements given by the new Interior Minister Mohamed bin Naif and his father who was the former Interior Minister, Naif bin Abdulaziz, both insist that the Interior Ministry is an executive and not a legislative body, that it is not responsible for the ban.
If we examine the Basic System of Governance, which corresponds to something like a constitution in the rest of the world, Article 8 states “governance in Saudi Arabia is to be conducted on the basis of justice, equality and consultation in accordance with Shari’ah”. And if we look at the Saudi system relating to traffic, we do not find any provision or stipulation preventing women from obtaining a driving licence.
These are the only two sources we have to consider in connection with this issue. The statement released by the Ministry of Interior in 1990 is rendered null and void by the fact that it was not based on the governing system.
But on the occasions that I and many others have tried to obtain a driver’s licence from the traffic department, we have been surprised, upon entering our identification numbers into the relevant system, to find an error message appearing on the screen: “The ID number entered belongs to a woman, it is not possible for a woman to obtain a driving licence”.
When I raised the issue with the administrative court in November 2011, wishing to make a case against the General Directorate of Traffic, and pointing out the lack of legal ban preventing a licence being issued to me, my case was referred to a special committee at the Ministry of Interior. In other words, to the very party I wished to prosecute.
When you hear the words “special committee” in Saudi Arabia, you know your case has been relegated to oblivion. And this has remained my fate until today.
We can conclude from all this that the Interior Minister is the executive body as well as being the issuer of the ban and the body that upholds it, which contradicts the statements made by both the Saudi Interior Ministers.
Now, a review of some of the reasons people give for the ban. Firstly, financial: influential families control the visa market for drivers. If they allowed women to drive, these families would lose huge financial returns from a market in which official figures indicate the existence of around a million drivers and which unofficial numbers suggest could contain as many as two million.
And secondly, a fatwa issued by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, issued concurrently with the Ministry of Interior’s 1990 decree and forbidding driving based on the Islamic principle of prohibiting that which might eventually lead to sin.
The justifications cited by the prohibition fatwa are nothing more than suppositions about what will happen to society if women are allowed to drive.
This has led to a situation in which denying women the right to drive, something which has no basis in the Muslim law, has taken precedence over prohibiting women to be alone with a non-Mahram male (which is prohibited in Shari’ah), as the woman inevitably must be chauffeured around.
In my opinion, the real reason is much simpler than all this. If a woman had asserted their right to drive since the day cars arrived in Saudi Arabia, it would by now be a routine matter and we would be dealing with none of the current clamour and uproar.
This is the reason that Bedouin women and women from the countryside drive comfortably outside of the city without being subject to hindrance or criticism. The banning of women from driving in the city is a result of the system of state that has been systemically imposed upon it; women in Saudi Arabia are considered minors under the law until the day that they die.
We will return now to the question that, in recent times, has become an ever more frequent topic of discussion: when will women in Saudi Arabia be able to drive? Many assume that the issue of allowing women to drive will be resolved with a royal decree, as happened with the appointment of 30 women in the Shura council in September 2011.
This decision, which was followed closely by many parties interested in the Saudi state of affairs, represented an attempt to improve the image of Saudi Arabia after a scandal involving an imprisoned woman driver garnered widespread attention.
But those who know anything about the distribution of power in Saudi Arabia know that there are several different competing parties within the royal family, each with its own ideologies and interests.
They also recognise that King Abdullah does not have the powers required to issue such a decree, and that the subject of women driving is entirely in the hands of the Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif; the King has no authority when it comes to this department.
Will a positive decision be issued by the Ministry of Interior? That seems improbable. More than 24 years after the first attempt to abolish the women’s driving ban, there seems not to have been a single breakthrough; there are no driving schools for women, nor any female traffic police.
Saudi police are still intent on stopping any woman who dares to drive, booking her car and summoning her guardian-in-charge to sign a pledge not to allow her to do so.
The authorities, in effect, show no leniency towards women drivers, as we who were demanding the right to drive hoped they might have done. The authorities also worry that responding to demands to allow women to drive will damage the prestige of the state and open the door to other popular demands for social and perhaps political change.
When will women be able to drive? We must recognise that the Bedouin woman never ceased –since the horse and donkey were replaced with the car, or the side-dagger with a rifle – to use new inventions to ease her life and affairs. Whether in the farmlands or the desert of Saudi Arabia, not one of her fellow men dared to doubt her chastity, her morals or her religious belief.
Meanwhile, the woman of the city has willingly parted with her rights and allowed everyone to compromise them, or else to use them for political gain or as a red herring to distract people from more salient issues.
In my opinion, freedom is a personal decision, not a political one. When the Saudi woman realises this fact, she will get in her car and drive it as many times as it takes for it to become a common sight, forcing the authorities to regulate the phenomenon rather than prosecute it.
And when she learns that rights are seized rather than granted, she will recognise how to eliminate the male dominion that has been imposed on her and cast her as a minor her whole life.
This gives an idea of the far-reaching nature of the Arab voice that has inspired the rest of the world through its continuous struggle; and through this voice, the world continues to bear witness to one of the most important eras in recent history.
The film Omar by Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad addresses the issue of Palestinian sufferings under the Israeli occupation and explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The film Karama Has No Walls by Yemeni director Sarah Ishaq was about the Friday of Dignity massacre that sparked the Yemeni revolution and ended 33 years of dictatorial rule. And last but not least, The Square by Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim documented the two years following the January 25 Revolution in Egypt.
I’ll pause for a little while at The Square, since my frequent visits to Egypt before and after the January 25 Revolution, along with my knowledge of a number of young revolutionaries who lit the fuse of revolution three years ago and ended up mostly in prison, have led me to feel a certain connection to Egypt: emotionally, mentally, and even in a revolutionary sense.
I will tell the story of these revolutionaries as embodied by one man, Omar Hazek, a poet and novelist from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, who spent his thirty-sixth birthday – the 31st of January this year – behind bars. Omar is neither a thug nor a corrupt official, a thief nor a criminal. He is simply a man who had dreamed since a young age of being released from the claws of dictatorship and lifting his head, if for only once in his life, to live in dignity.
I met him in 2012, when I visited Egypt to attend the conference “Change Your World” organised by Yahoo. Full of pride, he told me how he and his comrades had, after a bitter struggle, toppled the dictatorship that had relentlessly suppressed and humiliated them for decades.
He told me of how, after the torture-to-death incident involving his fellow Alexandrian, Khaled Said, they staged a protest: standing and looking toward the sea without a word, they announced their rejection of the injustice with their silence.
“We were a handful of young people, numbering not more than a few dozen,” he told me. Whether they went out in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, “Not one person believed us. We were exposed to ridicule from passers-by; we dealt with the frustration of our classmates and colleagues and the worry of our families. But we went out every day; we were prepared no longer to feel like victims of lifelong suffering, but like tigers, ready for martyrdom and sacrifice.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked him. “Was demonstrating allowed where you were?”
“Who said that demonstrating was allowed?” he replied. “We had lived under emergency law for decades. Because of the emergency law, we lost young people like Khaled Said.”
“But when the chance arrived for you and your friends to reap what you had sown, why didn’t you take it? I mean, why haven’t you founded a party for the revolutionaries and stood in elections?”
“It’s not that simple a matter. I’m a writer and proof-reader; I have my job at the library of Alexandria, and among the rest of the youth that led the revolution, we have a doctor, an engineer, an artist […] We all have jobs, and we have no interest or experience in politics. We started the revolution to end the dictatorship and corruption and enslavement which has humiliated us our whole lives, and afterwards we intended to return to normality; we had no political organisation or leadership, nor any funding for a political fight.”
A year after this conversation, Omar succeeded in toppling a second regime – that of the Muslim Brotherhood. We had a second conversation.
“We went from hearing slogans of ‘Down, down with military rule!’ to chants of ‘Come and help us, Sisi!’”How did that happen?” I asked Omar, recalling the memorable day of June 30, 2013. “Didn’t military interference represent a second disaster and a return to what we were fighting in the first place?”
“The Brotherhood left us no other option,” Omar replied. “They rode the wave of the revolution that we started and reaped its benefits for themselves. They began to consolidate power and carry out the orders of the morshid (supreme leader of the MB) rather than working to build a nation which brought all strata of society together instead of pushing them further apart. The Brotherhood and the military: each is dirtier than the other, and after the army’s intervention, we now have a long road ahead of us.”
Omar has represented his country in many international forums; he has won numerous awards as well as participating in the Arab poetry talent competition Amir Alshu’ara contest, which is judged annually on Abu Dhabi television.
He says he fought the rampant corruption occurring in the Library of Alexandria – his place of work – and was subjected to trial for exposing it.
He was also a weekly writer in the newspaper al-Dustoor (The Constitution). Omar was arrested on December 3, 2013 in a demonstration condemning the initial verdict against the killers of Khaled Said, whose death galvanized the youths in late 2010 and eventually helped spark the January 25 Revolution.
Omar was sentenced to two years in jail and a fine of fifty thousand Egyptian pounds, and wrote his first novel I Don’t Like This City whilst incarcerated. Omar and his comrades are victims of the law on demonstrations, and they represent nothing but a continued revolution, undeterred by walls.
Their official crime is that they breached the recently enacted law on demonstrations, but unofficially, they possess weapons of mass destruction: the mind, the pen and their dignity.
Published Monday March 24, 2014