Taking the Wheel

May 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehanm, TMO

car-steering-wheel-lgMost women in America don’t think twice about hopping in their cars and hitting the open road to run errands, pick the kids up from school or simply enjoy a long leisurely drive. However, in Saudi Arabia, women are still banned from driving despite several high profile incidents over the years that has thrust the global media’s attention on the issue. This past week the issue was once again brought into the limelight as a female Saudi Arabian citizen took to the wheel and later posted the video on the popular social-networking site YouTube.

With her brother in the passenger seat, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif, took a short spin that landed her in the slammer. The drive was deliberate as al-Sharif herself revealed in a recent interview in which she lamented her frustration for not being able to find a taxi one night, “I had to walk on the street for half an hour looking for a cab. I was harassed by every single car because it was late at night and I was walking alone. I kept calling my brother to pick me up, but his phone wasn’t answering. I was crying in the street. A 32-year-old grown woman, a mother, crying like a kid because I couldn’t find anyone to bring me home.” Al-Sharif learned to drive in the United States and holds a driver’s license from America. However, in her homeland, only men are issued driver’s licenses.

According to Saudi Arabian authorities, al- Sharif broke several laws after she got behind the wheel including, “bypassing rules and regulations, driving a car within the city, enabling a journalist to interview her while driving a car, deliberately disseminating the incident to the media, incitement of Saudi women to drive cars, and turning public opinion against the regulations.” Scores of Saudi citizens have rallied behind al-Sharif and begun to question the veracity of the driving ban on women especially when there is nothing on the books that legally bars a woman from driving.

Soon after her incarceration, a Facebook page was erected entitled ‘We are all Manal al-Sharif: a call for solidarity with Saudi women’s rights’ The page has already garnered 19,000 likes. Another fan page related to the women’s driving ban in Saudi Arabia is also getting a lot of support, to the tune of 6,000 likes so far, albeit for all of the wrong reasons. The page encourages Saudi Arabian men to beat their female relatives with a heavy brocaded rope known as the “Iqal”, which adorns the Saudi Arabian men’s headdress, should any of the women demand driving rights.

Al-Sharif remains in prison and her fate is yet to be determined. Some analysts have predicted she will stay in prison for five days, however it remains to be seen if she will face further penalties for deliberately flaunting the driving ban. Meanwhile, another Saudi Arabian woman copied al-Sharif’s drive this week and was swiftly arrested at a local supermarket. However, she was only held for a few hours and released.

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Pushing Freedom

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”. 

~Abraham Lincoln

freedomThe word “freedom” is one that is being heard more and more often in the Middle East whether it is in the media or brought up in simple conversation.  Countries like Egypt and Tunisia have already tasted the sweet tang of freedom in recent months. Other countries, like Bahrain and Libya, are still waiting to savor even a morsel of freedom in their countries. While certain parts of the Middle East have yet to provide full throttle freedom for its denizens there is one country that has been a beacon of light for a primary liberty, freedom of speech, in the Middle East for many years.

The State of Kuwait has topped the annual Freedom House “Freedom of the Press Survey” for several years running and has been heralded as having one of the most free media sectors in the region. However, this year, Kuwait was toppled from first position by Israel and further pushed down a notch by Lebanon to take third position.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait lost the top spot given that the past several months have seen quite an amount of political turmoil in the country with some media outlets not only reporting the news but also becoming part of it. At least one television station was ransacked in the pasts several months and one writer jailed over public statements they made which were deemed to be inflammatory.

Members of the public in Kuwait have also been prone to having their freedom of speech impugned as of late. This past January a Kuwait-based blogger was sued by an international eatery over writing a negative food review. Fortunately, the blogger proved victorious as the case was thrown out of court.  However, this past week a group of Kuwait University students found themselves simmering in a pot of “hot water” over comments made about one of their teachers on the social-networking site Facebook.

According to the teacher, who chose to press charges, the students posted derogatory comments about her teaching methods on a personal page. Other students chimed in about their experiences and it snowballed from there. Authorities investigated the incident and the case was seemingly closed until the teacher demanded punitive measures from the university’s governing panel. All of the students, some of which are set to graduate in the coming month, involved in posting the comments online face expulsion. In a counterclaim, a spokesman for the student union known as ‘The Democratic Circle’ has retorted, “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right granted by the Constitution. The fact that a university instructor does not respect this premise signifies the existence of a larger issue and jeopardizes the university’s reputation as an educational institute.”

Only time will tell if Kuwait can regain its status as the exemplar for free speech in the region. But one thing is for sure, censorship and transgressions against freedom of speech are both meals best served up cold. 

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Neda

June 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS

_32921_Neda
A screen grab captured from the popular social-networking site YouTube shows the final moments of Neda Agha-Soltan, as she lies dying from a bullet shot through her heart by Iranian government forces. 

She stepped out of the car for just a moment to catch her breath.  And in the blink of an eye she was shot dead by government forces in the middle of an Iranian street.  The lone bullet hit Neda Agha-Soltan right in the chest. The 26-year-old university student began bleeding from her nose and mouth as her eyes rolled back into her head and her body became still. The woman whom friends have described as a loving friend and engaging companion was buried the next day.  Her family was not even allowed to hold a memorial service or hang a black banner on the front  door  because the government feared it would only further incense protestors and cause more havoc on the Iranian streets.

Neda’s death was captured on a cell phone video camera and uploaded to the Internet before her body was even removed from the street. Millions of Internet users have viewed the footage of Neda’s final moments online and her death has served as a catalyst for the continuation of protests against perceived voting irregularities, which resulted in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For thousands of Iranians, Neda has become the symbol of the fight against the oppressive Iranian regime. She was an innocent victim who was targeted simply because she attended a public protest against the government.  There have been many innocent victims of the Iranian government’s crackdown on so-called unlawful protests. Both men and women alike have been beaten by merciless government forces, with many losing their lives in the battle.

Neda’s death has, specifically, reached out to the hearts and minds of Iranian women who have been emboldened to let their voices be heard. Some women walk down the streets adorned with the Islamic headscarf while holding placards skyward. Others throw stones and chant anti-government slogans. While others yet have used themselves as human shields to protect the injured from further atrocities or helped the wounded get off the streets and away from government forces.

The current protests in Iran have been likened to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, however there has been a drastic change that runs along gender lines. The revolution that took place 30 years ago was comprised almost exclusively of male protestors whereas today female protestors are clearly outnumbering the men on the Iranian streets. It has taken years for Iranian women to find their voices. Their coming of age can be seen in screen grabs from cable news program and in video footage uploaded to the Internet.

No matter what the outcome of the current protests turns out to be or how many innocents are beaten and battered. There is one thread of truth that runs through it all and makes Neda’s assassination anything but in vain. And that truth is that the Iranian women are the new pioneers for change in their country. With every step that they take or stone that they hurl, Iranian women are fighting the good fight for change, democracy and freedom in their country.

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