What it Means to be One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World

I spent the last weekend in Istanbul, having decided with my husband to escape the hectic daily news cycles of cosmopolitan Dubai, bustling with all kinds of events. It was meant to be a time for relaxation, to enjoy the beautiful natural scenery and the delicious Turkish cuisine. But my obsession with how international media are representing transitions in the Arab region seems to be insatiable.  Time Magazine’s feature on the 100 most influential people in the world might be an annual journalistic ritual, nothing out of the ordinary, but the inclusion of several women from Muslim backgrounds in the list was compelling enough for me to be lured in by the story. [Read more...]

Facebook isn’t the Final Frontier for Female Drivers in Saudi Arabia

On June 17th, women in Saudi Arabia plan to take to the streets—they’re going to get behind the wheel to protest a religious edict forbidding them to drive. As Eman wrote in a post about the Women2Drive campaign yesterday, Manal Al-Sharif posted a Youtube video of herself calling on all women to drive their automobiles on that day. She told CNN that her move was induced by the fact that “there is no law that bans women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia, besides the fact that it is becoming so frustrating to wait for a cab or a male relative to pick us up.”

Manal Al-Sharif

Manal Al-Sharif.

For some advocates of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and the region at large, the Women2Drive campaign amounts to no more than a virtual effort that will not make a dent in long-entrenched conservative traditions.  Attitudes against women driving also reflect the complexity of social contradictions in Saudi society, where women have access to formal and university education and many modern professions, yet they are denied the right to drive a car.  The critical question often raised is how media channels, especially social networks, can be harnessed to bring about positive shifts in negative long-standing social perceptions of women as drivers.

I believe that we should not pin much hope on social media alone to realize women’s rights.  The media has only a supporting role to play and often leaves long-term effects on audiences. In order to affect tangible changes in peoples’ behavior, we need to create knowledge on the subject at hand before we move to reinforce positive attitudes towards that subject.  It is in this context that I see the Women2Drive cyber campaign’s contribution to raising awareness about Saudi women car drivers as instrumental in achieving those projected long-term effects on people’s attitudes.

[Read more...]

Manal Al-Sharif and the Ban on Saudi Women Driving

Women2Drive, Manal al-Sharif

A poster for the Women2Drive campaign that features Manal Al-Sharif.

Last week, Manal Al-Sharif was arrested because she posted a video of herself driving around Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia, on YouTube. Because it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, both she and her brother were detained. Al-Sharif has since been released, having pledged to take no further part in the Women2Drive campaign.

The Women2Drive is the campaign to overturn a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia that was enacted in 1990. Through a web-based campaign that includes a blog, Facebook and Twitter, 10 Saudi women–including Manal Al-Sharif–encourage all Saudi women who have international driving licenses to drive through Saudi streets on June 17th in protest of the patriarchal ban:

“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”

Though it might seem like something basic, driving for Saudi women is potentially a major change in life style. Even King Abdullah himself thinks so, as he stated more than once that he supported the reforms, including the lifting of the ban on women driving cars, when it is accepted by “[his] people.” Other religious leaders and governmental figures argue for lifting the ban: [Read more...]