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Could Saudi Women’s Driving Protest Usher in Social Reforms?

June 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Videos posted on YouTube Friday showed several Saudi Arabian women driving in Riyadh and other cities -- a direct violation of a religious ban that prohibits women to drive a car or obtain a drivers license. Judy Woodruff discusses the protests' impact with blogger Hala Al-Dosari and Arab Reform Bulletin Editor Michele Dunne.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this story and its possible wider ramifications, we go to Hala Al-Dosari — she’s a writer and blogger and Saudi women’s rights activist — and Michele Dunne, a former State Department and National Security Council official, and now editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.

We thank you both for being here.

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Thank you.

HALA AL-DOSARI, Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me start with you, Hala Al-Dosari.

You have lived in Saudi Arabia. We talked about it — we described this as a religious ban. What sort of law is it?

HALA AL-DOSARI: Well, there is no written law, according to our knowledge.

And before the campaign of Manal, we have surveyed the written laws in Saudi Arabia, and there is no written law in Saudi Arabia constitution or the traffic law that really specifies prohibition of women from driving.

So, the assumption was made that this is just a customary thing, and based on statements released from the government top officials, that it is just a societal issue, and once the society is ready, the ban would be removed and lifted.

Many women have tried to talk in the media, and finally ended with Manal al-Sharif taking the initiative herself and trying to lift the ban. But after the arrest of Manal al-Sharif and the pressure on the government to justify the illegal arrest, because there is no written law, the deputy minister of the Interior Ministry just came out to the press and said that there is in fact a law enacted by the Ministry of Interior in the 1990s based on a religious fatwa for the late mufti Bin Baz.

We were not aware of such a law and the government laws. So, it came as, actually, a surprise to most of the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Dunne, so it sounds like it’s principally a religious law.

HALA AL-DOSARI: Yes.

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes, this is a — this was a religious fatwa.

But the thing is, in Saudi Arabia, these can be enforced by the Mutaween, the religious police, and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is the practical effect of it? What does it really mean for women?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, the practical effect is that it makes it very difficult for women to work. For example, they either have to have male relatives drive them or to hire chauffeurs. There are hundreds of thousands of chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia.

A lot of people can’t afford that. And, so, it really makes it difficult for women to have any freedom of movement even within the country, let alone to move outside of the country, for which they also require permission of a male guardian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you were – you were also saying that, in the countryside, there is — women do drive more than they do in the cities, is that right, that it’s more observed in the city; is that right?

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes. I understand that, in the rural areas a lot of women drive just informally, without a license, and it’s not enforced.

But, in the cities, it is, and it’s very unusual for a woman to try to drive. And if they do, like those that did today, it is without a license.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hala Al-Dosari, why this protest now? We know women have been unhappy about this for some time. Why is this happening now?

HALA AL-DOSARI: Oh, I think the thing that really sparked everything is the positive impressions received by the government.

Because of the intentions of reform and because of the general situations in the Arab world, we do — we did assume that there is a good time for reforms happening in Saudi Arabia. And based on that, people started putting petitions for all aspects of rights and for all aspects of reform.

And one of them, of course, the major sector of the society that was limited are women. So I think it’s the opportunity for reform was ripe. That’s why the call for driving was renewed again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what exactly — Hala Al-Dosari, staying with you, what exactly are the women asking for? Are they limiting their demands just to be able to drive, or does it go more broadly than that?

HALA AL-DOSARI: Of course women are demanding discrimination — removal of discrimination against them in all aspects of life.

But, of course, the most powerful movement that happened was Manal because of her arrest. We had another campaign going on, but it didn’t really receive a lot of attention, although the local media talked about it a lot, which is the campaign to allow women to participate in the municipal elections. And this is one of the first elections allowed for people. It’s the first election where 50 percent of the members in municipal counties — or councils — are now open for people to vote and to be elected, instead of being appointed. So, there was another movement along the driving movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Dunne, how is the official — what’s the official response to this by the monarchy?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, I think, on this occasion, they tried not to respond much. There were not arrests today and so forth, unlike a protest that happened like this 20 years ago. This has been going on for a long time, that women have been pressing to be able drive, in which the women were arrested and treated very badly and so forth.

So, now I think they have tried to play it cool. And King Abdullah has been trying — has been sending a signal: Well, this will happen at some point. Women will be able to drive.

The other issue, as Hala just mentioned, is political rights. Political rights are very limited for everyone in Saudi Arabia. There is no elected legislature. But there are municipal council elections. And Saudi Arabia is moving toward holding its second set — they were — the first ones were in 2005 — in the fall of this year, in late September.

And there is a move on to allow women to vote and to run in those elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Saudi Arabia has been relatively calm, publicly calm, compared to other countries in the Middle East during the entire Arab uprisings. Is this — does this indicate there’s more unhappiness under the surface, or is this an isolated thing, the protests by women?

MICHELE DUNNE: What’s going on here, I think, shows us that change in Saudi Arabia is maybe going to take a different course, and it’s going to focus initially, perhaps, more on social issues.

We have the women’s rights issue. And then there are also, for example, the rights of Shiite Muslims, as opposed to the majority Sunni Muslims in the kingdom, Shiites pushing for their rights. That’s another — that’s been another sort of focus of some unrest and protest within the system. There are small numbers of people in Saudi Arabia who sign petitions asking for real political change, to move the kingdom to a constitutional monarchy and so forth.

But those, I think right now, are considered more distant demands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hala Al-Dosari, finally and very briefly, how far are the women, do you believe, prepared to take this? I know you’re in touch with the leaders of this movement.

HALA AL-DOSARI: Well, the people that I am affiliated with are determined to go on with this until they claim the right for driving and for other rights as well.

None of the women are willing just to give it up because the government is not responding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we will leave it there and continue to watch this story.

Hala Al-Dosari, thank you very much.

Michele Dunne, thank you.

HALA AL-DOSARI: You’re welcome.