Arab women are driving their own change - they deserve respect, not pity

Arab women are driving their own change - they deserve respect, not pity
Comment: The most significant changes occurring in the Arab world for women are being driven by women, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
30 Aug, 2017
Saudi activist Manal Al-Sharif who drove in Saudi Arabia sees herself as a 'history maker'[Getty]
When I was shoulder-deep in research for my book on Arab women, I was immersed in the stories of strong, resilient women. They were seeking not the freedom to emulate a western woman, but the freedoms motivated by inherent desires.

And these women are spearheading a significant and historic change in conservative societies that trumpet the protection of women in defence of outdated laws.

In the last month, we've seen monumental changes to the penal codes in Jordan and Lebanon around laws that affect women who are victims of crime, following years of activism.

As many women in the Arab world pointed out to me as I conducted my research, Arab society is drenched in honour codes and imbalances between the sexes. And when a crime is committed against a woman, it is the family's honour that the law seeks to preserve. Moreover, this fuels the attitude that women require protection, rather than that they have the ability to manage their own lives.

In Jordan, where activists have long sought to make changes to the entire penal code, a law that gave rapists a punishment loophole was revoked. More specifically, article 308 allowed rapists a free pass out of jail if they married their victims.

In Lebanon, a similar law that is decades old was also ditched. Once again, it was the work of tireless advocates for women's rights that saw the law eventually abolished. In one campaign, women used the symbolism of a wedding dress, but instead of pristine white gowns, they displayed torn, bloodied dresses on billboards with the caption "A white dress does not cover rape".

These women are not ignorant or to be pitied; they are their most effective campaigners

In another development, the Jordanian government has allocated $1.4 million to open a shelter for women in danger of crimes around "honour". As reported by journalist Rana Husseini, who has spent the better part of her career documenting so-called "honour killings" in Jordan, many women face indefinite imprisonment in Jordan when their lives are threatened by family. It's not the offender who is punished; women are placed in "protective custody", some languishing for a decade without charge. 

This may seem a minor step; after all, can change come fast enough? But it's a major development considering the long road activists have faced in shifting society's beliefs around honour and shame.

When Husseini first began reporting on so-called honour crimes, she was a lone voice. Her voice has been instrumental in garnering support from wider society, government and even the royal family, in order to criminalise these murders. Thanks, in part to her efforts such as hers, sentences have since increased.

Many of these women are up against deeply ingrained ideas about male superiority, and the belief that men cannot control themselves. Yet men are never instructed to change; only women, who are told to dress conservatively, to be modest and shy. Unfortunately, the focus is not on teaching boys how to be decent men; rather on being a modest, virginal woman - free of shame.

Women will openly share their frustrations about this mentality. Yet this honesty is so often lost in the symbolism of the Arab woman who needs saving.

Consider Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who sat behind the steering wheel of a car and drove on the streets of Khobar to protest the prohibition on women driving. The custom of women being chaperoned by men fell under the heavy blanket of guardianship, which sees women treated as minors. Al-Sharif has herself gone so far as to say women in the Kingdom are treated like "slaves".

The act was heralded as one of defiance, but in Al-Sharif's words, it was one of "disobedience". She took an event and turned it into a campaign, Women2Drive, where the "mundane" act of driving was used to raise awareness about the discrimination Saudi women face on a daily basis. It became a symbol of disobedience, powerful in its simplicity.   

Immediately lauded by the West, Al-Sharif became the face of a cause and her message was shaped into one of the oppressed woman fighting unjust customs in a patriarchal Arab society. In tone, it smacked of the poor Arab woman wanting to be western, because what could be more western than driving?

In tone, it smacked of the poor Arab woman wanting to be western, because what could be more western than driving?

But what is stronger than a woman disobeying customs and risking her liberty in the process?

Make no mistake, what Al-Sharif did was significant, and it got her into trouble. But she has told media that she wasn't being a "troublemaker"; she was a "history maker". 

And what is partly so significant about Al-Sharif's act of rebellion is that she is unapologetic, refusing to surrender the issue of women's rights in her country to other concerned parties. While she is deeply engaged with the world's interest in Saudi Arabia, she remains in control of her own messaging.

Al-Sharif has very openly criticised her country's misogynistic laws and customs, ones that repress women, not men. But as she details in her book, Daring to Drive, while travel opened her eyes to possibilities beyond those she knew of in Saudi Arabia, what she was seeking that day was to gain a basic right: to be the driver in her own life.

It took a great deal of courage to challenge a custom (it's not a law, but the licence required is not issued to women) that enlivened the power imbalance between genders in Saudi Arabia. But tired of being reliant or under the thumb of men, Al-Sharif and many others with her were on a path to self-determination.

It is true that women in Saudi Arabia suffer from a lack of choice in many ways. But women are protesting for their rights. These women are not ignorant or to be pitied; they are their most effective campaigners.

Take, for example, this video, which mocks guardianship laws. And last year, Saudi women petitioned for the abolition of the guardianship system. Many women wear wrist bands with the words of a popular hashtag emblazoned on it in Arabic and English: "I am my own guardian".

Saudi-Australian artist and activist Ms Saffaa has developed an entire body of work around the hashtag.

A new generation of women are finding that their voices can have great reach and they are using them. The result is a discernible shift in Saudi Arabia as it slowly introduces change to a society long bound by rigid ideas about gender interaction and the role of women.

Women now have the right to vote and will be taking up more jobs and study without a male's permission. Female competitors at the Rio Olympics are another example of Saudi society needing to bend to the realities of the modern world – there is a place for women at the table, and on the sporting field. 

Mostly importantly, it is women themselves who are leading such necessary change by challenging the status quo. Their personal experiences inform their passion. It's their self-determination at stake. It's not simply that women are their best champions, they are their most essential.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.