Saudi woman activist: government must grant women's rights

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

For many, the typical image of a Saudi woman is an oppressed veiled figure deprived of basic rights. Saudi activist Wajeha Al Huwaider has been showing the defiant side of Saudi women by the simple act of putting a video on YouTube.
 
With this alternative form of activism she has attracted Western media to the issues that have been brushed under the diplomatic carpet for too long.
 
Driving
One of the videos was a big hit on the internet two years ago. For the occasion of International Women's day, Al Huwaider was shown behind the wheel of a moving car. In the video she says:
 
"I am driving the car now in Saudi Arabia in a remote area where women are allowed to drive cars. But in cities, where women need them, they are forbidden to drive".  
 
In the video she pleads with the Saudi interior minister to allow women to drive. She also offers her services giving driving lessons to other women. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to be alone in a room or a car with men they are not directly related to. 

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Blocking forces
But while Al Huwaider agrees that the problem lies mostly in the social acceptance of giving women more rights, in an interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide she says: "Regardless of what forces exactly are blocking our rights, the responsibility lies with the Saudi government which must change the legislation that discriminates against women".
 
It is unlikely, however, that women will take to the streets of Riyad or Jeddah in a mass protest. According to Al Huwaider, most women are too afraid to take any kind of action. She had to conduct some of her activities alone because other female activists bailed out at the last minute.
 
But the biggest stumbling block is the delicate relationship between Saudi Arabia and the West and the powerful position it enjoys because of its wealth, thinks Al Huwaider. This has prevented foreign governments from pressuring Saudi Arabia to clean up its human and women's rights records.
 
In an article published in The Washington Post late last year, Al Huwaider described the "guardianship rules" that Saudi woman are subjected to as "most humiliating". Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel, study or start a business of their own without the written agreement of a male guardian like a father, brother, husband or son.
 
When Al Huwaider, who is divorced and the mother of two boys, was detained for questioning at the border between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the authorities refused to release her on her own. She had to call her younger brother in order to be released.
 
Alternative protest
After her arrest, Al Huwaider was banned from continuing her activism including writing articles on the matter. Instead she has been campaigning in alternative ways and on various women's issues such as driving, child marriage and the freedom to travel. During a visit to Virginia last year, she staged a protest in front of a car dealer and addressed the American auto industry. Her message to them was: "Saudi women want to buy your cars (and many can afford to). But first, you must support our fight for the right to drive".
 
Al Huwaider is an award-winning writer and activist. In 2004, she received the PEN/NOVIB Free Expression award in The Hague. For a while she also wrote for the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, the largest in the country. But she suspects her activism has prompted the editors to stop publishing her articles.