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Vote or drive? Saudi women would rather be behind the wheel

Fahad Shadeed / Reuters

Female driver Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh on June 22, 2011.

By NBC News' Lubna Hussain
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In a country where women still don’t have the right to drive, they may soon gain the right to vote.

King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s 87-year-old monarch, recently announced that women will get the right to vote and run in local elections for the first time in 2015.

Although the news was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm at first, many remain skeptical that the announcement will really herald a step towards equality for women in this desert kingdom.

What do Saudi women think of this latest announcement?

In a stylish café in the well-heeled Riyadh neighborhood of Olaya, five sets of mothers and daughters of the city’s elite band of western-educated families recently gathered for coffee and casually discussed their hopes and fears for the future.

A fleet of Maybachs and Bentleys delivered the women to the family section of the restaurant, where they entered sporting oversized sunglasses, designer veils and bags. They spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

A new world
“You have to understand, it’s very frustrating for us,” said Shireen, a stay-at-home mother of four, “because on the one hand the king is really trying hard to give us our rights and on the other hand there are so many people who are against him.”

Her 17-year-old daughter Sarah, unveiled and irreverently exposing her mane of thick brown hair agreed. “I think it’s worse for our generation,” she complained. “I mean, we see what’s going on in the world and you can’t expect us to just accept the fact that we can’t have a life because we are told that this is the way it has been for over a hundred years. There are people of my mum’s age who maybe did that because you know, they didn’t have a choice and they weren’t exposed like me and my friends are.”

Fayez Nureldine / AFP - Getty Images

Saudi women walk inside the 'Faysalia' mall in Riyadh City, on Sept. 26, 2011.

Reem, who is Sarah’s classmate at school, echoed her friend’s sentiments. “Our grandparents and parents’ generation was totally different because in those days the authorities could control what was going on through the media and things like that. They reported the news on television and in the papers about what they wanted the public to believe. Not that many people traveled and most Saudis didn’t question what they were told. So they just lived with whatever decisions were made for them.”

How is it so different now, I asked. After all, local media is still subject to censorship and many issues are still considered too taboo to even discuss publicly.

“Now,” Reem said emphatically, “even if they screen what’s going on, we can watch news from a hundred different news channels and have friends from all over the world through Facebook and email. That’s how the whole Women2Drive campaign took off through Facebook and Twitter.”

That’s a far cry from 20 years ago when anyone owning a prohibitively expensive satellite dish would be subject to an exorbitant fine and run the risk of members of the religious police shooting it down with a rifle!

Nowadays, watching “Desperate  Housewives” and surfing the web is a common activity shared by all Saudis rich and poor. And it’s perceived, by those opposed to change and modernity, as an unavoidable social hazard. Many sites that contain pornography, or even allusions to it, are blocked, although tech-savvy youngsters manage to work their way around such firewalls and pretty much have access to everything.

Getting behind the wheel
Indeed, it was through this very platform of technological advancement that Saudi women finally found a voice. June 17 was announced as the date for women to throw caution to the wind and get behind the wheel and drive.

An aggressive campaign launched on Facebook and Twitter saw scores of women in the driver’s seat for the very first time in a country where women are still forbidden from driving. Emboldened by the Arab Spring and seizing the opportunity to send a clear message to their government, those women brave enough to take to the streets were greeted with a traffic violation and no further repercussion.

Nonetheless, in a country filled with paradox and seemingly endless contradiction, two days after the king declared women eligible to vote, religious clerics sentenced one of the Jeddah drivers to 10 lashes. Furious with the decision, the king then personally repealed the flogging – signaling in no uncertain terms that anyone opposing the empowerment of women in the country would be in direct conflict with him personally.

Reem’s mother, Mashael, a British-educated doctor who is responsible for the lives of both male and female patients alike, interrupted her daughter and said, “Social media can be a good thing, but it can also be negative. This is also the same media that has the power to galvanize the hardliners in the kingdom and gives them an equal voice.”

Mashael believed it was up to the king to help usher in real change. “What I feel is that like with King Faisal who had the guts to introduce girls’ education, in spite of the objections and disapproval of the same people who now object to women driving, our king must do the same.”

She was referring to the very popular monarch who was seen as being directly at loggerheads with the religious establishment by allowing women to have an equal education to men in the 1960s. Indeed, Faisal was seen as a visionary by his people and even established television broadcasts for the first time throughout the kingdom, which led to his assassination in 1975.

“It’s as simple as that!” Mashael added. “You don’t want to send your girls to school, you don’t have to! You don’t want your daughters and wives to drive, you don’t have to let them! But what is so ironic, is that all these people who are against it now, in 20 years’  time, all their women will be the ones driving them around!”

‘Give me a day as king’
The appeal of being able to vote or stand in the 2015 municipal elections got a far more muted response.

Wafaa, a Harvard University graduate with her own business, dismissed the idea that the proposed right to vote was a significant achievement.

Hassan Ammar / AP

In this Nov. 11, 2010 photo, Saudi woman with cell phones smoke tobacco from a water pipe as they drink coffee in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t think that voting in a process where we can’t effect change is a big deal at all. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it is because at the end of the day, even our men aren’t bothered with these councils or their elections,” said Wafaa. “I read somewhere that only a fifth of registered voters even bothered showing up, so this is all a bit of a show with no real substance at all. Give me a day as king and I will show you what real progress is all about,” she giggled.

There is a definite contradiction that exists within this deeply traditional culture that most Western audiences fail to understand. Saudis, it seems, seek modernity without compromising their religious values or heritage.

So whenever a controversial issue such as driving, or women’s voting crops up, there is almost a Newtonian response whereby the push and pull are almost equal. That might help explain why any real change to the outside eye is quite imperceptible, whereas to those within, it can be perceived as being monumental.