by Aryn Baker
Maha al Qatani settles herself in the driver’s seat, adjusts her headscarf, and with a quick prayer turns the key in the ignition. “I’m not nervous,” she says, even if the uneven tenor of her voice betrays tension. “When we lived in the US I always drove my kids to school.” But this is Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.
In taking to the traffic roiling along one ofRiyadh’s main thoroughfares, al Qatani is defying a longstanding prohibition against women drivers, one that just recently landed another woman driver, Manal al Sharif, in detention for nine days. The issue of women driving occupies a gray area inSaudi Arabia.
It’s not banned by any formal law, and in some desert communities women do drive unmolested. But in the major cities it has been long prohibited by religious rulings backed by an official order from the Interior Ministry.
In May 2011, Sharif took that ruling head on by posting a video of herself driving on YouTube, and calling for a nationwide protest drive on the 17th of June. It was a bold move that earned the ire of the authorities. She was charged with disturbing the peace and inciting protests. Since then several other women have posted videos and photos of themselves driving online, and spread the message via Twitter.
In one of the most peculiar revolts to have been inspired by the Arab uprisings, al Qatani and dozens of women like her have taken to the streets. They are leaving their drivers at home, and taking their positions behind the wheel. They are driving to the grocery store, to the doctor, or to pick their kids up from school. Those thankless errands may plague women round the world, but for some women inSaudi Arabiathey are a long dreamed of privilege. One by one, with no fanfare and no banners, they are claiming their rights with a simple spin of the steering wheel.
Al Qatani signals right and turns into a narrow alley in front of several men who stare into the window of the SUV, mouths agape. She is faced head on by a car coming in the opposite direction. “Yallah,” she exclaims. “Doesn’t he have any sense? I am a woman!” Her husband, Mohammad al Qatani, chuckles from the passenger seat, delighting in the shocked expression of the facing driver.
When al Sharif first went on YouTube with her campaign, it ignited a nationwide debate over whether driving for women was a privilege, or a necessity. Several women declared their intention to make their opinions known on the 17th, but al Sharif’s detention and subsequent public shaming deterred many would-be drivers, who feared that the cost of taking a stand would be too high. Not al Qatani. “If no one sacrifices, no one will get their rights,” she says.
And al Qatani is prepared to face the worst. Next to her is a coach bag stuffed with the essentials for a potential prison stay – deodorant, comfortable clothes, a hairbrush and a prayer mat. Earlier, I had asked her if she was afraid of getting picked up. “I really don’t care,” she said. “It’s my right. I didn’t do any crime, I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t sell drugs. Those people need to be in jail. Not me for doing my rights. If they do this, it’s a big mistake.”
We pull onto the highway crammed with traffic. Few drivers notice the woman in the black veil driving alongside them. A few children point and smile, but al Qatani is more concerned about the gridlock than potential witnesses. “I hate traffic,” she groans. “Even if I had permission to drive, I will still make Mohammad drive.” Mohammad al Qatani, a seasoned activist and passionate supporter of women’s rights, chuckles. “This is about having a choice,” he says.
The levity is interrupted by the bark of a police horn. We pull over. The cop walks up to the drivers side, and, flummoxed by the sight of a woman in a full-face veil at the wheel, scurries over to the passenger side to confer with Mohammad al Qatani. Mohammad steps out of the car with the cop, and is escorted to the waiting cruiser. Maha al Qatani films the scene with her iPhone, fearful that he will be taken away. Then she calls a friend to check in on her three kids, waiting at home. By this time we are surrounded by six police cruisers. Another cop leans into the passenger side window to bark at Maha al Qatani. “Does your husband know how to drive?” he asks. Al Qatani replies yes. “Then why was he in the passenger seat?”
Maha raises her normally quiet voice in defiance. “I am taking my rights. I am driving. Why do I have to rely on Indians and Pakistanis to drive me around?” she shoots back, referring to the common Saudi practice of hiring immigrant drivers.
The officer looks stricken. “I don’t know what to do,” he says plaintively. He has never been faced with a female driver before. “If I raise it up the issue of her driving it is wrong. If I let you go it is wrong.” Maha al Qatani just stares him down.
Driving, says al Qatani, is not a woman’s right but a human right. Driving, she says, “is just the first step.” One she hopes will bring more rights not just to women, but to men too. After a tense half hour, Mohammad al Qatani returns with the cop at his side. Maha shifts to the passenger seat, and Mohammad takes the wheel. He silently hands her a yellow sheet of paper. Maha al Qatani stares at it for a moment, her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she breaks into peals of laughter. Raising her fists in a victory salute, she shouts, “It’s a ticket. Write this down. I am the first Saudi woman to get a traffic ticket.”
For anyone else a traffic violation would be a headache. For Maha al Qatani, and Saudi Arabia’s women, it is making history.
Lashed for Being a Rape Victim
When the defense attorney for a raped Saudi Arabian woman appealed a Sharia Court decision that the 90-lash sentence against his client was unjust, all that was succeeded was the more than doubling of the punishment meted out to the woman who was raped and beaten by seven men, as reported by the women’s rights-centered news portal The Clarion Project on Sept. 22, 2013.
A yet to be publiclly identified female gang rape victim was initially found guilty and sentenced to 90 lashes for violating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia‘s (KSA) rigid Islamic law on segregation of the sexes.
The Kingdom’s General Court determined the woman sat in an automobile with an old school chum to whom she was no blood relation, hence, she violated Islamic Sharia Law of gender segregation.
The victim’s lawyer Abdul Rahman al-Lahem had plead to the international community for help in freeing his client or at least pressuring the Saudi government to grant an appeal.
From Bad To Worse…
And an appeal he got — along with an increase in sentence from 90 lashes to 200 along with a six month prison sentence tacked on for good measure.
The KSA Ministry of Justice implied the victim’s sentence was increased because her lawyer had spoken out to the world’s news outlets.
As carried by the government’s official Saudi Press Agency:
For whoever has an objection on verdicts issued, the system allows to appeal without resorting to the media.
The statement also said that the “charges were proven” against the woman for having been in a car with a strange male, and repeated criticism of her lawyer for talking “defiantly” about the judicial system, saying “it has shown ignorance.”
The Lead Up…
The victim was attacked in 2006 while she was attempting to retrieve a photograph from a male high school student she knew.
While in her acquaintance’s vehicle, two other men got in the car and drove the woman and her friend to a secluded area where five other men met them.
It was in this remote area where all seven men raped the woman.
The Clarion Project also cited that the woman’s friend was in turn “attacked” by the assailants, but it is unclear if he was beaten, raped or both.
The Price of Questioning Saudi Law…
Anecdotal evidence has long existed that prostitution rackets operate all over Islamabad. Officials always felt shy of recognising the seamy fact though, but no more.
Recently, a senior officer of the Islamabad police submitted a report to the Islamabad High Court (IHC), identifying 58 locations in the federal capital territory where the immoral trade is carried on illegally.
However, the police could not recover the anonymous girl whose cry for help from a brothel to the court led to police inquiry into prostitution dens in the city.
It was after Assistant Inspector General of Police Sultan Azam Temuri reported the failure to trace out the unfortunate girl that the court asked police for a detailed report on the wider issue of flesh trade in the city home to 1.5 million people and attractive to all kinds of visitors.
A perusal of the police report shows that the prostitution trade thrives most in the middle and upper-middle class sectors of G and F series.
Tariq Mehmood Jahangiri, a former deputy attorney general and deputy prosecutor general, says that this geographical spread began in the 1980s, a decade marked by military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq’s arbitrary push for Islamisation of the society.
Before the general’s arrival on the scene, red-light areas existed in the major cities of the Islamic Republic, with societal stigma attached to the people visiting the places like Heera Mandi in Lahore and the Qasai Gali in Rawalpindi.
Jahangiri argues that frequent crackdowns on such places, pushed the prostitution activities underground but also spread it, with flesh traders setting up business in up-market residential areas of major cities to avoid the wrath of the police and embarrassment.
Demand for illegal sex has grown with lust for money and corruption in the society and more and more women are being forced into the trade.
“In numerous cases, I found that a woman was pushed into prostitution after being sexually exploited by her senior colleagues and employers.
“Small-level property dealers, private clinics and production houses would hire women in need on lucrative salaries and then seek sexual favours before handing over the first salary,” Jahangiri said, adding that unprotected, a poor woman would end up succumbing to the immoral demand – and eventually in a brothel.
His explanation is supported by stories that have come to light in court cases.
A couple of years ago, police arrested Farzana alias Kalashnikov for prostitution. She told the sessions court where she applied for bail that her husband was an addict.
That compelled her to take work at a private company where the employer sexually exploited her.
A “sympathiser” introduced her to a brothel owner from where she graduated to start her own business.
Senior lawyer Zulfiqar Bhutta says that even government and judicial environment are not free of such vile exploitation of women.
According to him court officials and opportunistic lawyers go after female litigants who don’t have support of the family and friends.
Women in divorce case, not accompanied by their family and not familiar with legal procedure, become potential targets of their wild designs.
“Some of these problems can be averted if the laws relating to the protection of women are implemented strictly,” he said.
Legal expert Nayab Hasan Gardezi supported Bhutta observing that though the Protection of Women against Harassment at Workplace Act 2010 provides that a victim’s statement and the evidence acquired in the inquiry process shall be considered as confidential, the law gives remedy at the organisation level only.
After the registration of FIR against an accused, the victim has to follow the lengthy criminal procedure code and has to face hostile cross examination by the defence lawyers.
In rape cases, he noted, even the DNA result is treated as secondary evidence and the statement of victim is the primary evidence which cannot be considered by the court without her harassing cross questioning.
Such discomforts and social pressures for a compromise, the victims decide, in most cases, to drop the case against their tormentor.
Tanveer Jahan, Member National Commission on Status of Women, a statutory body that monitors mechanism and institutional procedures for protecting women rights, told Dawn that the laws provided protection to women but are not implemented.
According to her, most victim women suffer silently because they thing prosecuting the abuser will harm them than the abuser.
“In case a woman files a complaint and asks for justice against the offender, the laws provide her complete protection and facilitation,” she said.
“Few women dare to adopt legal process against their exploitation. A majority of them simply put down the incidents to their own bad luck.”