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Saudi Women Resist Repression by Walking

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Saudi Arabia is the only country on Earth where women are banned from driving. There is no official law that enforces this; it is just a societal norm.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif helped start the campaign to change this norm after filming herself driving in Saudi Arabia. In the video, which gained 700,000 views on YouTube in one day, she called on other women to participate in the Women2Drive campaign on June 17 of that year. She was arrested and the video was taken down four days later.

Now a new campaign is making headlines. The #ResistanceByWalking campaign emerged after many women in Saudi Arabia filmed themselves walking without men – a simple display of defiance. The campaign is a part of the growing protest against the restrictions that prevent women from participating in everyday activities unless  accompanied by a man.

Women are not only banned from driving, but from opening a bank account without permission and leaving the home without a male guardian. A state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women is strictly enforced, and there are separate areas and entrances in public spaces that women are forced to use. Women also must wear a full-length coat-like garment called an abaya and a headscarf, a hijab.

Women are required to completely cover their bodies at all times not only due to their Muslim faith – at least for the majority of Saudi women – but also in fear of not only being chastised by their government or being raped or sexually assaulted. A young woman raped while out alone receives more punishment than her attackers! “Unlawful” mixing of genders always results in the woman facing harsher punishment.

Regardless of these outraging facts, a woman’s freedom is largely dependent on the goodwill of the male guardian, whether they be a father, brother, or other male relative. At least 1,000 women flee Saudi Arabia every year because of the country’s deep-rooted misogyny.

One woman who posted a #ResistanceByWalking video to Twitter says, “[The interior ministry] doesn’t mind me crossing the street on foot. What matters to them is that I shouldn’t drive and that I don’t become my own guardian.”

The deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud has said that the Saudi community is “not convinced about women driving,” and claims that it is an issue that relates to the community itself. Again, there is no official law that restricts a woman from driving. It is up to the community to accept or refuse it.

So who is a part of the “community” that decides this change? Women have recently been given the right to vote, but they still live in a country where men have more rights and power in the community. Saudi women are so restricted that even peaceful protests are banned. This is why the #ResistanceByWalking campaign has gained such a huge following.

Many men and women have rejected the Western ideas that are infiltrating their country. Multiple generations are debating how to be modern and Saudi at the same time. Change needs to be created in this country that allows the people to maintain their identity, while giving women access to freedoms other women across the world have enjoyed for decades.

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