Bouts of Courage: Saudi Women Challenge the Driving Ban
This Friday morning, some 40 women around Saudi Arabia challenged their country's driving ban by taking the wheel on the streets of several Saudi cities. It was meant as the kickstart to the WOMEN2DRIVE campaign. As some news reports point out, this morning's protest can hardly be considered a wide-spread movement in light of the country's 28 million population. Certainly it does not compare to the violence and mass uprisings that have characterized the region's recent 'Arab Spring'.
But that does not mean its participants had nothing to fear. Punishment for ignoring the ban (the only one of its kind in the world) includes imprisonment and the revokement of travel permission. The latter is a significant consequence, as most Saudi women who can drive learned to do so outside the country. For the most part, police allowed the small demonstration - assumably ordered to stand down because the orchestrated protest had garned international media attention. It remains to be seen whether the campaign, version of which have existed since the 1990s will have any effect on the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Women there are required to leave the house with a male companion, and the reasoning behind the driving ban seems to be that it prevents women from contact with strange men. As they are forced to hire male drivers, however, one wonders how that reasoning makes any sense at all.
When I read the news about this today, it left me with one question. A question I often asked myself while writing GIBBIN HOUSE, which is: would I have the courage to do the same?
I suppose that is the betwitching aspect of writing fiction - creating characters that lead the sort of lives and take the sort of decisions we would never be able to ourselves. In Gibbin House, I tell the story of a woman who despite her speech-impairment moves thousands of kilometers from her home to live with complete strangers, after having suffered indignity after indignity. To say nothing of her mother's story. It's easy to say, well, that's war. Terrible things happen and one moves on, and a day when you are not hungry or threatened is a good day.
But what if it's not war? What if it's not everyone whose suffering, only some people? Do you have the courage to stand up and change things?
I'm reminded of this group of grad students I befriended at FSU in the 90s, who had gone to Bosnia during the war to run supply trucks and work in a medical station outside Mostar. They went there with the idea of being humanitarian aid workers. They came back traumatized and jaded. And I wondered then, would I have had the guts to go there, even if I didn't know just how bad it would be? Were these pot-smoking former frat-boys heroes or just bored with comfort and complacency? I don't know. But doubtless, they were driven by the idea of adventure.
I assume these women today did not approach their protest today as an adventure, (although one woman is reported to have been quite thrilled and itching to do it again:)) Nor the hundreds of women in Afghanistan who brave an education or a sport, at the risk of being attacked or having their school burned to the ground. They put their safety on the line in order to exercise a right afforded to everyone around them. They are not threatened by a common enemy, their threat is all around them, in their families even. How does one find the courage to act against it all? How did the women in my own family, faced with similar dangers, find the will to take a stand. I suppose they didn't always. On the whole, I am consistently astounded at how easy my life is (my biggest gripe as a woman is why a man won't pay for dinner), I can hardly wrap my mind around such brave acts of defiance. I only hope I do my characters who are stronger than me, justice. I suppose it's up to my readers to be the judge of that.
On an aside, I have to mention the husbands who this morning got out of their car to make room for their wives (The Guardian UK). Every little act is a step forward.