Even as President Barack Obama was delivering his speech on political change in the Arab world, with a call for the "universal" rights of women to be respected, close US ally Saudi Arabia – one of the most patriarchal societies on earth – was getting ready to jail a young woman for having the temerity to get behind the wheel of a car.
Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist, uploaded to YouTube a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province last week. The video was part of an online campaign encouraging Saudi women to take a page out of the Arab uprisings playbooks, and to defy oppression by driving on June 17 of this year. Over the weekend, Ms. Sharif was arrested and is currently being held on charges she disturbed "public order."
The video she uploaded has since been taken down (though some of the shocking footage is used in this Al Jazeera story), as has the Facebook group she started, though a similar page was recently restored by emulators.
The de facto ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia has long been the front line for Saudi Arabia's small group of women's rights activists. During the first Gulf War in 1990, the presence of US women soldiers driving Humvees in Saudi Arabia inspired a group of wealthy Saudi Arabian woman to hold a driving protest, with 14 cars convoying around the capital Riyadh – with male relative minders – for half an hour before being shut down by the religious police.
That group, who argued they should have the freedom to go the store or drive to work by themselves, were cheered as whores and worse by the mutaween, the young thugs that the government allows to enforce public "morals" as interpreted in the Saudi Arabian version of Islam. Most of the women involved were banned from traveling abroad for a year as punishment.
This time, an online group of Saudi mutaween has gathered to attack Sharif and likeminded Saudi women. Youtube and Facebook have been filled with vile attacks on Sharif from anonymous keyboard warriors.
As a matter of practice, the rights of women have improved little in Saudi Arabia since 1990. Women still require the permission of a male relative to travel abroad and are severely limited in their employment opportunities by segregated work places and school. Many young Saudis say there's growing underground dissatisfaction with the level of repression within the country and that they'd like a change. But in a country where even polling is controlled by the government, it's hard to say how far that sentiment extends.
With the harsh action against Sharif, it's clear the government doesn't want to find out.
King Abdullah is said to favor relaxing the restrictions on women (he opened the country's first and only coeducational university, named after him, in 2009), but the country's reactionary clerical hierarchy does not. The clerics wield considerable informal power, with many average Saudis agreeing with the proposition that women should be tightly controlled by their husbands, fathers, and brothers. (Women are starting to challenge this guardianship system, however; see today's nice piece by Monitor correspondent Caryle Murphy about a female Saudi doctor who is appealing to the country's supreme court for the right to choose a husband.)
There's probably not much that Obama – or any US president – could do to change Saudi Arabia's culture. The country's vast wealth and position as a reliable, mass producer of oil has always earned it a much lighter US touch on human rights problems than other nations. As Obama admitted "there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region."
But his was a speech in which "Saudi Arabia" was not even mentioned, in which Obama promised "we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations."
Iran, for what it's worth, is given a better rating for gender equality than Saudi Arabia.