Over 50 women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel on Oct. 26 despite a nationwide ban prohibiting women from driving. Many of these women then proceeded to record videos of themselves in cars and uploaded them to YouTube, capitalizing on the country’s recent use of social media to spread their message of abolishing the ban. Despite threats of punishment from the Ministry of the Interior prior to the event, the movement was still successful. What these Saudi women accomplished on Oct. 26 deserves international praise and should be regarded as a lesson in activism for Western feminists.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in which women are not allowed to drive, even in emergencies. According to The Independent, the government arrested a woman on Nov. 4 for driving her diabetic father to the hospital. In addition, a top cleric defended the ban in September by asserting that driving is damaging to women’s ovaries—a statement not based in science, but perhaps in systemic misogyny. Finally, according to Al Jazeera, the website that the Oct. 26 campaign set up was hacked with the following message: “This site has been hacked because I am against women driving in this holy country.” However, banning women from driving is not a facet of Shariah law, and it is a direct violation Saudi Arabia’s agreement to carry out measures of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Some call this cultural imperialism, claiming that Western activists have no right to call on the Saudi Arabian government to lift the ban just because driving is the norm for people of all genders in the United States. It is true that we are privileged to be both women and licensed drivers. It is true there are many Saudi women who oppose allowing other women to drive because it may provoke or facilitate violations of other parts of Shariah law.
The claim for cultural imperialism is valid, but the Oct. 26 campaign was a movement created and executed by Saudi women. Foreign feminists should not impose their beliefs on or condemn the Saudi culture, but can support the women behind the campaign by watching their videos and drawing attention to the movement. The ultimate decision, however, belongs to Saudi Arabians.
The campaign is a lesson to Western feminists, many of whom have become complacent in the progress that we have seen thus far. Here, it is easy to become a “slacktivist,” one who is a self-proclaimed activist but fails to actually live it out. The women involved in the Saudi Arabian campaign risked their lives, their families and their reputations to further a mission they believed in. We should be inspired by them to tackle our own unsolved rights issues, in particular by continuing to focus on the intersectionality of feminism with gender, sexuality, race and class. Feminism requires action, and feminism feeds on change.