Sunday, September 18, 2011

Manal al-Sharif

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I haven't always been the best feminist I can be. Some may think I'm too hard on myself, however, there is something to be said about these moments of weakness that speak to the struggle many women have in accepting ourselves as equal members of society.  The feminist's purpose is overcoming the mind fuck drilled into us as soon as we are swaddled in pink as newborns.  Feminism is about reprogramming ourselves to believe it is OK for us to think outside the acceptable perimeters defined for us. Clearly, this is really hard to do. Great strength is required to see beyond what everyone else sees and accepts.  

Peg pic.
(Has the baby girl been abandoned
or just not picked up yet?)
Feminist Fail Admission for This Post:

As a kid, I always put the blue (male) peg in the driver's seat in the "Game of LIFE". 

I remember this because it was really important to me to adjust the driver peg after "getting married".  My mom noticed this once and said, "You know, you can put the blue peg as the passenger." But it just wasn't right in my mind. I hated that she noticed I went out of my way to switch the pegs because it made me feel a bit ashamed. I felt like I let her down for some reason, even though she was usually in the passenger's seat when we were in the car with my dad. I didn't want her to think I thought only men could drive, since she was the main "chauffeur" for my sister's and me when we needed to get to practices and friends houses. 

Now, obviously, I recognize this is just a game and that most would think it's just a silly little thing. However, I'm pretty sure my sister Mim used to do it too and we aren't much different from other women our age. I bet a lot of girls grew up adjusting their gendered plastic pegs. Why would we do this? Even in the game, the single peg is responsible for "driving" itself on the board before the "wedding". How did we know where the proper place was for the pink peg after the blue peg entered the scene? 

Driving Miss Barbie
Driving is directly marketed to males from birth which is why men like cars.  Ad companies allow us to believe that the way society is shaped comes from some natural place but really they just mold us into the standard that sells shit the best. Boys like to go fast and be powerful. (Read: boys are allowed to like to go fast and be powerful.) So "naturally", dudes like cars. Hot wheels are for boys. RC cars are for boys. Even the illustration on the box for the "Game of LIFE" has every car driven by a guy. Look at the Power Wheels page on Fisher Price's website. Only a few models are made for girls (they are all pink, NATURALLY) and if there is a girl in a "boy" car,  she is the passenger. Barbie doesn't even drive her own beach cruiser! (Clearly, this is a great way to sell Ken dolls.) These images are advertised to children. Toys teach. 

Then of course, there is the way real drivers are marketed. Take this ad for tires from 1970...

Or this one from 2010...

What have we learned? 
Men drive. 
And women are a liability. 

These ads are FORTY years apart. The 1970 ad is now known as "The most sexist ad ever!!!", but I'm not sure the 2010 ad is any less offensive. It's actually slightly worse I would say since the only change represented shows men are no longer mandated to "protect" their burdensome wives but can now discard them when necessary. Whatever. 

My boss Leigh Ann just had a negative Facebook run-in with her 20 year old male* cousin. He posted this as his status:
"Women cannot drive at all. period."
This bothered her A LOT. More than it should, as some people told her. But he had "likes" and supportive comments all over this update. He didn't even think twice about being offensive and defended himself when she questioned the statement's legitimacy. Nothing about what he said is new or interesting. We all have heard that women can't drive before and I'd say more than some of us have accepted this as fact.

I now understand why it was so important to me to put the pink peg on the right side of the little plastic vehicle: I was doing as I was told.

                              *   *   *   *   *

Gloria and Jackie
Academy of Arts & Letters Board Members
Jacqueline Kennedy was interviewed in 1964 shortly after the assassination of her husband. These recorded conversations have just been released to the public. She makes many critical comments directed toward some prominent women who, at the time of the recordings, had chosen to live their lives much less traditionally than the former first lady. After her second husband passed away, she chose not to remarry and lead a successful career life as a book editor until succumbing to cancer in 1994. In his statement after her death, her son famously said she died" her own way, and on her own terms."  

Women like Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy, and Bella Abzug socially martyred themselves in the name of feminism back in the 1960's and 70's so women like Jackie could accomplish more than they originally thought was acceptable. She went from being a woman who believed her secondary status was her primary duty, to a woman who was taking advantage of the new rights won for her by those she once negatively referred to as "being afraid of sex." Her later life is just one example of the successes of feminists and the significance of their sacrifices. 

                                *   *   *   *   *

Enter, Manal al-Sharif.

al-Sharif's slogan: I don't like the backseat!
This video was a part of the women's rights campaign al-Sharif began in Saudi Arabia in order to lift the ban imposed against female drivers. She filmed herself driving with the help of Wajeha al-Huwaider, another activist, and posted their conversation to YouTube. She was arrested shortly after and ignited a renewed desire by women, and many men, in her country to extend driving rights to all citizens. 

During her illegal ride, she sites many practical reasons to grant women the driving privilege. She is not speaking irrationally or angrily. She doesn't turn on her Islamic faith. She doesn't speak negatively about the state of her nation, but rather intelligently high lights the reasons the ban should be overturned:

- Cost of hiring a driver is too high for many to afford
- Educated women are kept ignorant of driving rules; unprepared in an emergency
- Relying on strange men to drive puts women in danger of sexual harassment and rape 
- Women are also banned from public transportation, so they are further inconvenienced when trying to get to work or run errands if they can't get a cab or driver

Manal's right to drive campaign was different than previous attempts because she infused these practical reasons with feminist rhetoric. She wants women to drive because they are no less than men. Women aren't just for emergencies. We don't exist to simply support the male population. This was a message that resonated with many Saudi citizens. In her video she says:
 "A woman has the same right as a man in her daily life. To dignity."
These words are revolutionary. And they worked. After Manal's arrest, there was a campaign to free her that was won. She started a wave of women driving to join her in her protest. Tickets are now being issued to women caught behind the wheel, which is a positive change from the arrests that used to occur regularly. Secretary Clinton, along with others all over the world, have also spoken out against the ban which has fueled great hope that it will be completely overturned in the near future. 

Manal's struggle resonates with me on a personal level. I am not a licensed driver. 

When I was 16 years old, I caused a fatal car accident. 

Back of my ID Card.
Clearly, not a license.
Manal speaks about her time living in the United States and the time Americans invest in teaching teens to become safe drivers. She recognizes driving can be dangerous and should not be a responsibility taken lightly. This was a lesson taught to me in a terrible tragedy. The accident was simply an accident in the sense that I wasn't doing anything overtly dangerous or wrong.  It happened in August of 2001 and I stopped driving in the winter of 2010. The decision to do so was not easily made. It was more of a gradual process in the years following the accident. I knew the great freedom I was giving up and can identify with the Saudi women. I am now dependent on a lot of people because of my choice to not drive. Luckily, I am not prevented from using public transportation because of my gender and getting my license is as easy as retaking a driving test. Well, theoretically it is that easy; I don't have any bans to overcome. 

We are not as in control as we think we are when we get behind the wheel, no matter how many precautions we take. Cars are dangerous. While I'm relatively well adjusted and have overcome a lot of guilt, I still HATE this part of my personal history. I'll forever experience moments of intense pain, causing a lot of anxiety and frustration. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened. Outside of not driving, I don't think there is a way to ensure a similar accident won't happen again. Driving for me means I'm ready to take responsibility for the lives of others on the road and in my vehicle. I am not strong enough, yet. 

Manal has given me a lot of reason to not embrace this personal weakness, however. She has reminded me I am sitting on top of a privilege that shouldn't be squandered. So, I'm working on my mental issues regarding my unlicensed self. There are some positives to not drive. I can say I'm super "green" and I don't have to deal with the high cost of gas. But I don't think it's something I should never do again. If I have kids someday, I don't want them to grow up with an immobile, dependent mom. My grandma Madelyn never drove because of the insecurity her dad made her feel when she was learning to drive. I don't think she would want her granddaughter to limit herself in the same way. My little sister Cat just got her driver's license after years of not being sure she wanted the responsibility driving entails either. But she knows in order to accomplish the goals she wants to achieve in her lifetime, she needs to be as independent as possible. I'm very proud of her.

I mentioned Jackie Kennedy to show that Gloria, Bella, Flo and all feminists have a real impact. It's hard for us to see the point to feminism because we live in a relatively evolved country today. American women are granted the same rights as men which makes it easy to think the feminist struggle here is won and done. It also makes it easy to forget how things used to be. Manal is a modern day example of what it took to get us to where we are: women sacrificing; women fighting. Her words and her efforts should encourage us to not take our own right to drive for granted. This includes thinking about the ideological inequalities remaining between the genders in the way we view who should be the driver. Our attitude toward women behind the wheel should be expressed with cultural equivalence to the laws we uphold. Barbie should drive her own beach cruiser with Ken in the passenger seat. Commercials should advertise women confidently skidding to stops with safe tires in speedy vehicles. AND, *20 year old males who rely on their female cousins to drive them in sports cars because they don't know how to operate a stick shift, shouldn't be arrogant enough to post sexist Facebook updates. 

The reason the ban exists in Saudi Arabia against women drivers is to propagate gender segregation and make sure males have more opportunities than females. As liberated women in America, we have a responsibility to recognize the rights we are privileged to experience. We need to partake in these rights whenever possible and always be vigilant against any threat to them. Every time a woman drives herself to work, tells her daughter to place the pink peg in the left hand side, and reminds an immature boy about his  own shortcomings behind the wheel, we are supporting our Saudi sisters and affirming the work of all feminists.