Saudi feminist Najalaa Harrir’s trial for breaking the Saudi driving ban back in June is set to commence, thus making Saudi Arabian female activists question their progress in the ultraconservative nation.
Harrir was one of 40 Saudi Arabian women protesting the driving ban. These women filmed themselves driving as a part of the protest “My Right, My Dignity”, which aims to reward civil rights to women in Saudi Arabia. Many posted their videos on YouTube; Harrir herself was simultaneously on a Saudi television show while driving.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not permit women to drive. While a part of the population holds on to and accepts the unique nature of Saudi society, complete with its restrictive gender opinions, many women are beginning to lash out and seek change.
The driving protest provoked public outcry. Kawaiti feminist Rana Al-Abdulrazaq described the protest as “[Women] fighting a tradition of ignorance and masculinity.”
Attorney Waleed Aboul Khair, who will be prosecuting Harrir, carried out official questioning Sunday morning in the urban metropolis of Jeddah, in preparation for trial.
The case proves interesting because there is no official, written law stating women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia.
Rather, the driving “ban” is an Islamic sharia law; a decision made by political groups consisting of powerful and conservative Muslim clerics, such as the Office of the Mufti and Ministry of the Interior.
Harrir’s questioning occurred on the same day that King Abdullah announced the reform allowing Saudi women to run for and participate in municipal election, beginning in 2015.
They will also be able to participate in the currently all male Shura Council, which provides general economic, political, and social council within the kingdom and between foreign nations.
Although this is a giant gain for gender equality and freedom, Saudi feminists remain critical, arguing that King Abdullah is not moving fast enough for women’s rights, especially considering the fact that the political reform will not be implemented for another four years.
Critics also express skepticism of King Abdullah's announcement because he never used the actual word "vote," and activists worry that this announcement will become obsolete in the upcoming years.
Famous Egyptian feminist and columnist Mona ElTahaway tweeted: “Royals & ultra-conservative clerics claim society ‘not ready’ 4 women to drive. More like royals, clerics not ready 4 women's rights.”
Critics argue that after rewarding women the ability to run for office and participate in the Shura Council, laws such as the driving ban have become irrelevant and petty.
“The climate is more suited for these changes now - the force of history, moral pressure and the changes taking place around us,” wrote famous Saudi columnist and former editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, Jamal Khashoggi.
Currently, Saudi Arabian women must always have a male guardian, and are not allowed to travel outside of the country without a male guardian’s consent. They also cannot open bank accounts or attend school without male assistance.
Activist Manal Al Sharif was another woman arrested for driving during the June protest.