The Middle East is churning with unrest as rebels strive to overthrow autocrats. In Saudi Arabia though, there is a revolution of another kind as women take to the streets to break the ban on driving. More power to them, say the city's women
It is at times like these that the adage: the world is a small place, seems to be untrue. There are miles both metaphorical and literally between Saudi Arabia and other nations if you consider that at a time when women are on missions to the moon, in Saudi Arabia, they are not allowed to drive a car.
Nastaeen Dawoodani with her daughter
As the Arab Spring erupts shakes the Middle East with blood flowing in the streets as rebels protest against autocratic rulers, another kind of revolution is in gear in Saudi Arabia. Since June, women have been defying the men-only driving rule.
Driving is a right women take for granted in other countries. It is a shame and embarrassment that Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive.
Clerics couch their stance in ludicrous statements like driving would allow women to mix with men and driving entails women to show their hands while at the steering wheel, the ban is one of the most regressive in the world and is soundly rubbished by Muslim women in the city.
Asks Mira Road resident Sanaa Mirza, who has been driving for more than a decade now, "What is the problem about women driving a car in Saudi Arabia? Of course, women should be allowed to drive. I think women know their limits. If they drive, they are hardly going to take the car to some dangerous place or some place illegal.
When I hold the steering wheel in my hands, I have control of my destiny," says the mother of a young daughter, making a powerful statement. The former telephone operator at the Qatar Embassy, is a stay at home mom now, "Which makes it all the more important that I drive.
I can do the errands on my own, I can go out by myself." As for the Saudi line that driving would expose a woman's hands, Sanaa says, "the sharam (shame) should be in the eyes. A covering does not automatically make you into a good person.
I know some people who are covered up in burkha but they are rotten people. There are others who do not cover fully but they are very good people, so covering is hardly an indicator of morality."
Dilshat Ahmed, a trainer at For-She Travels & Logistics Pvt Ltd. in Andheri (E), thinks the problem is with the male mindset, which prevents women from becoming independent. For-She Travels & Logistics Pvt Ltd cabs provide cabs service to various corporates, "but these cabs are unique at all of them have women drivers," says Ahmed.
While Muslim women from various conservative families do come to learn driving, sometimes convincing them can be quite difficult. Ahmed explains, "After we have a chat with their family members and tell them that driving will make their daughter really independent, they tend to understand." The company has a specific dress code for its drivers.
"Women who prefer to wear a burkha come to the office and wear a uniform (trousers and a shirt). After their duty hours, they wear the burkha and go home," says Ahmed. Haseena Shabbir Mulani (31), a trainee with For-She cabs, has given up wearing the burkha after she started driving. "Driving has given me a sense of independence.
It has changed my outlook and given me a fresh perspective. I don't wear the burkha anymore," says Mulani. After Mulani, her sister, Shabana Sheikh Amen (25) too enrolled for the driving class. Mulani, who lives in Chembur, claims that she has always admired women drivers.
For Nastaeen Dawoodani, freedom is in India. "It is here that we are truly free," says the Dongri resident. "We can ride a bike or drive cars. I ride a scooter and find it so convenient with my six-month-old daughter, Falaq. I can finish my work, go to the market myself, it makes me so self-sufficient. Nowhere has it been said or written in Islam that women should not drive, there is no restriction like this. The ban may be politically motivated as it has no religious basis."
Search Saudi Arabia and women's rights on the Internet and one is taken aback at the number of restrictions on women in the country. It is positively in the dark ages, yet, it has supporters (women included) who state that the West cannot impose its culture on the country.
Current reports state that the government under King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is considered reformist. It has opened the country's first co-educational university, appointed the first female cabinet member, and passed laws against domestic violence. Women did not gain the right to vote in 2005, but the king supports a woman's right to drive and vote. Critics say that the reform is very slow, though.
Slow and steady is cool rider Tarannum Jariwala's motto as she rides her scooter through the Mumbai streets, relishing her independence and saying, "I feel so proud to be Indian."
Tarannum says she drops and picks up her children from school and even drops off their lunch boxes, "I go at lunch time and drop them off because I am mobile and it is convenient."
Tarannum asks incredulously, "Not allowing women to drive? Which era are they living in? One cannot use the religion to justify such bans. This ban must be challenged and broken. Women must have full rights," stresses Tarannum before zooming off on her scooter.
Sabina Mansoor Ali Ansari (33) has been riding an Activa (a scooter) for the past nine years. A primary school teacher, it was her son's health, which prompted her to start riding her own vehicle. Said Ansari, "My son has asthma.
I stay in Mumbai Central and the doctor who was treating my son was based in Dongri. Hence, I had to take him for treatment to Dongri.
So, I learnt driving from one of my friends and life is now a lot easier. My parents were very encouraging." About Saudi Arabia Ansari said, "What is happening in Saudi Arabia is more political. It has nothing to do with Islam."
For Zishan Lalani, it is have Scorpio, will travel. She says, "Today, women are flying planes, so why can't they drive cars? There is nothing in the faith that says they cannot drive. This is a very narrow-minded view." For Zishan a car means independence, "To do my work, to drop off my children. I even drive to Pune on the highway. All the women in my family drive," says the Mazagaon resident.
Rallyist Rufina Karmali says driving is a passion. "I have a very steady hand at the wheel and I may drive fast but I have great control of the car. All these reasons trotted out for disallowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia are nothing but excuses. What religion does is ask for discipline from both men and women." Rufina even participated in the Rotocross held in February this year at Deonar, where, "I stood first amongst the women." In fact, says Rufina, "By not allowing women to drive, you are forcing them to take cabs. These are driven by unknown men, so isn't it much safer that she drives her own car?" asks the Bandra resident.
Haseena Shabbir Mulani
The International Travel Information on the US Department of State site has a several cautionary notes for women, about what to do when expected to travel or live in Saudi Arabia. From dressing very conservatively to warnings that even homosexuality is considered to be a criminal offense and those convicted may be sentenced to lashing, prison, or death, it has a list of social do's and don'ts with a section especially dedicated to women's rights.
For Najma Kazi, principal of Anjuman-i-Islam Saif Taybji Girl's School (Urdu medium) in Mumbai Central, driving she says is, "No big deal as everybody in my family drives." Recalls Kazi, "I remember in 1971, when I was a student of the same school, our principal a woman used to drive a car. We used to admire her so much and always wanted to be like her.
She was none other than Raeesa Mirza, tennis player Sania Mirza's grandmother."
Shermeed Syed, Altamount resident who has visited Saudi Arabia in the past says , "there it is frustrating for women to be at home and wait for the man to come home and take one out in the car.
It makes women feel stranded at home or forces them to take cabs with unknown men as drivers. Moreover, many of these cab drivers come from foreign countries and do not know the lingo.
Women must be allowed to drive there, there is nothing in the religion that forbids women from doing so. Even the Prophet's wife used to ride horses."
The steering wheel may have just become symbolic of women's rights to choose where they go in ultra conservative Saudi Arabia. From hold the reins to grasping the steering wheel, it is all about having control over one's life and eventually destiny.
On June 29, five Saudi women were taken into custody accused of defying the men-only driving rule in the ultraconservative Arab kingdom. These detentions marked the first major backlash by authorities since a campaign was launched by Saudi women nearly two weeks ago to challenge the driving restrictions.
About 40 Saudi women got behind the wheel earlier this month, saying they were launching a campaign to lift the restrictions in the Muslim country, where women can only appear in public when escorted by a male relative.
Saudi Arabia has no written law barring women from driving only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics following a strict brand of Islam known as Wahabism. The group, Saudi Women for Driving, said their campaign was inspired by the Arab uprisings against autocratic rulers, the Arab Spring, as it is popularly known.
Saudis tell the West to interfere
The traditional Muslim community line has been that the West stop 'interfering' in its affairs. This time though, the Saudi women themselves asked for interference asking US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to speak up on their behalf.
Clinton then lent her support and stressed though that the women were acting on their own, on behalf of their own rights, and not at the behest of outsiders like herself. Clinton called them "brave," saying, "I am moved by it and I support them."
Saudi Women for Driving, which had asked Clinton for her backing, organized a show of defiance by women who drove in the country June 17 and encouraged them to continue operating cars. Even the European Union said that it supports people who stand up for their right to equal treatment, wherever they are.
The statement came from the Office of the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton. "The Saudi women who are taking to the road are exercising their right to demand that equality. They are courageous and have the High Representative's support."
Several members of the U.S. Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, have backed the campaign.