By: Paula Kweskin and Amanda Hernandez
Four years ago, the world watched the Arab Spring unfold. Human rights activists around the globe anticipated and hoped for revolutionary action in the Middle East. A movement that began at a small produce stand in Tunisia caused dictators to fall in Libya and Egypt, while causing others to strengthen extreme policies in order to quell growing dissent.
The Arab Spring uncovered potential for improving the lives of women in the Middle East, as citizens took to the streets in places like Tahirih demanding greater social and political rights. Pundits praised social media outlets for creating vital connections among activists from Cairo to Khartoum which led to numerous, successful protests.
Four years later, global activists remain hopeful for democratic, humane, and open Middle Eastern societies. However, turmoil, violence, and widespread human rights abuses continue to plague the region. The Middle East remains overpowered by civil war and Islamist leaders, causing the worst refugee situation since World War II and the collapse of entire state systems.
Although the region is often viewed against the backdrop of transformative geopolitics, for men like the produce seller in Tunisia, and women like the protesters in Tahirih, little has changed in their day-to-day lives. Societal problems are especially difficult for women, who are still legally treated as second-class citizens in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive. Fatwas (religious edicts) that prohibit female drivers force women to hire expensive chauffeurs or rely on male relatives to take them anywhere. Human rights activists Wajeha al-Huwaider and Manal al-Sharif used the media attention of the Arab Spring to promote rights for female drivers, a movement that started years before but picked up little traction until recently. They organized a campaign for women’s rights by encouraging women to drive throughout Saudi Arabian streets. Now an annual occurrence, this year’s day of protest is June 15, 2016.
A strong social belief that women’s driving is hazardous to the moral well-being of society has caused anti-driving campaigns to circulate. Hateful social media hashtags like #YouWillNotDrive have been disseminated in response to the women’s movement. The pro-driving campaign strives to resist this hostility with positive social media hashtags like #IWillDriveMyCarOnJune15th.
Unfortunately, our world is faced with global challenges and crises at an alarming rate. Distractions are suppressing the awareness of daily struggles women face in the Middle East. Through protests and movements, the women of the region have planted seeds of change. It is now our turn to champion for the growth of those seeds.
A movement for human rights may not have to be about removing manipulative dictators. Perhaps it is about using the resources we have – social media, access to information, and our individual voices – to pressure these dictators from the outside to improve the lives of everyday citizens on the inside. Media attention may compel Saudi Arabian King Abdullah to be receptive to lifting the long-standing government ban on women drivers.
Through our simple actions, we will see massive changes. Join the women of Saudi Arabia on June 15th, 2016 in supporting the #SaudiWomenDrivers movement.