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.”
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.
Within this awareness-raising dimension, I have come across impressive contributions in support of women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Virtual campaigns on Facebook were launched in support of “Women2Drive” and Manal Al-Sharif. A group named “We are Supporting Manal Al Sharif” has mobilized 10,000 fans by posting daily news in addition to pictures and videos on relevant issues and events. When Al-Sharif was detained last week, her sympathizers did not take to the streets in protest. Instead, they posted videos of her driving on Youtube (below), and created a number of campaigns on Facebook and Twitter that specifically called for her release. Saudi bloggers, like Eman Al Nafjan, posted messages by Al-Sharif , intended to remind women on how to conduct themselves on the day of action, June 17.
Virtual campaigns carried out through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube will definitely make positive changes in public perceptions of the issue inside Saudi Arabia. But again, we should be cautious about making hasty conclusions of any imminent transitions. In Saudi Arabia, deep-running opposition to the idea of women sitting behind the wheel remains as solid as ever before. Many religious figures continue to preach against this issue, often describing it as “an attempt at Westernization,” and warning against Saudi women being potentially subjected to harassment and even abduction.
It is comforting to see more Saudi internet users showing realistic expectations about how social media could contribute to promoting their causes. In an interview with France 24, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi activist who launched a similar campaign in 2008, said: “I’m under the impression that this mobilization has somewhat changed mentalities inside the country, but I also see that authorities haven’t budged an inch.” She adds: “When I learned of Manal’s ‘Women Drivers’ day initiative on June 17, I immediately decided to give a hand. The fact that she uses new technologies like Facebook and Twitter means that she is capable of reaching a much larger number of people.” Al-Huwaider recalls how, in 2007, she was trying to rally friends by email and over the phone. “It was a much longer process,” she added.
The issue of women driving will continue to define public discussions in Saudi Arabia and the region for some time in the future. While much of the Saudi women’s ideological battle for the right to drive will most likely be fought in virtual space, it is the real-world battle that eventually makes the difference. But with such issue facing opposition in the country’s conservative communities, the role of conventional media channels is bound to be severely stifled by such hostile attitudes. Hence, if we truly believe that awareness is the key to this long-term battle for change, then women have no choice but to go virtual!