New York City -- It's my favorite time of day, favorite place in the world: Gridlock, Midtown. At the wheel of my car, I am engaged in Manhattan traffic in my black hybrid. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys blast out an Empire State of Mind on the sub woofers, animating the languid pedestrians jaywalking around me. When did New York City pedestrians ever become languid, I think to myself. As I tap in time on the steering wheel, it's hard for me to believe that I once gave all of this up to live in Saudi Arabia, where, for two years, my car keys would be firmly wrested away from me, by state legislation.
As the humid afternoon breeze ruffles my hair playfully through the moon roof, my abbayya-wearing days seem no more than a distant mirage. As I cut across an inattentive cabbie into lane, sneaking a place ahead of him with a dash of triumphant rubber burn, the barking of a visored, unkind Muttawa telling me to 'cover my hair' now seems impossible.
What can I tell you? America is that kind of place, New York, that kind of town. It makes you forget all the worlds you ever knew before you stumbled upon this one, such is the abandon of the freedom to be enjoyed here. Almost twenty years after I first walked through these canyons, every day still feels like my first.
I am one of very few: an independent Muslim woman with freedoms, choices, power and a family very firmly behind my empowerment. The women I left behind in Riyadh and Jeddah haven't what I possess. While they have money, travel, educations, marriages, motherhood and de rigeur chauffeurs, they haven't the most basic element of what thrills me, even in congested traffic: the freedom to move unimpeded. They lack the freedom, ironically, to choose gridlock. They have never enjoyed an afternoon wrestling in the rough-and-tumble, love-hate, gotta-be-kidding-me, are-you-outta-your-mind jujitsu that is authentically New York.
Exciting developments are afoot in the Kingdom for sure, a place that has changed much in the ten years since I first made my home there. Developments in the economy which is now moving towards a clear vision of a post-petrochemical era; advances in investment in science and technology in the shape of the breathtakingly ambitious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; ever more advanced technological and public health management of the world's largest mass gathering - the Hajj, the pace of development has been staggering. But one basic oversight remains unchallenged: the status of Saudi women.
Legally, let alone culturally, Saudi women remain firmly disadvantaged. Saudi women cannot travel without the permission of a male relative. Saudi women are compelled to adopt the abbayya, whether with a face-covering, head covering or demure scarf, the choice is not theirs, the must veil demanded through legislation. Saudi women cannot drive, irrespective of however dire their need to do so including responding to an emergency. Saudi women lack the vote- the only country in the world where women cannot vote is Saudi Arabia.
What a shame, when even an abysmally failed state like Somalia scores higher in this regard than the epicenter of one of the world's greatest religions which espoused equality in men and women over a millennium and a half earlier. Islam documents in the Quran in no uncertain terms that both men and women have the same obligations to their Maker and their obligations earn identical rewards for their actions in they eyes of their Maker. Men and women are clearly equal in the revealed scriptures which are the basis of Islam.
The inequality of Saudi women in comparison to their male counterparts is therefore painful and disappointing indeed, especially given the very ambitious and frankly bold moves of the current swashbuckling monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who is forcefully spearheading interfaith dialogue and aggressively resuscitating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process which has been in a persistent vegetative state for the last decade or so. President Obama, in recognition of the Kingdom's critically important role in this vital work will be meeting with King Abdullah tomorrow on the eve of his meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let's hope between discussions of strategies to dismember Iran's nefarious regional ambitious, the King and the President spend private time talking about developments centering on womens rights in the Kingdom.
Take special note of the early Muslim women who were able to bring their injustices and demands to the attention of then living Prophet Mohamed and subsequently gain social progress, rights and recognition. As is so often said here in the States: "Don't ask, Don't get". Early Muslim women knew this, just like our ancestral sisters - the courageous daughters of Zelophehad - knew too. Without knowledge, women cannot challenge.
Rights, like power, are never given, but taken and as I watch from the comforts of a freedom I have tasted and will never again relinquish, allow an audacious Saudi woman to speak for herself and her fellow women.
Wajeha Al Haiwaider is a world famous activist for Saudi womens rights. You will recognize her from her defiant you-tube postings. On Sunday morning she sent me a letter which I share with you, verbatim, below.
Dear Mr. President,
Allow me to introduce myself: I am Wajeha Al-Huwaider, Saudi writer and womens rights activist in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When you meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz next week, we kindly request that you bring to his majesty's attention the issue of reforming the Saudi male guardianship system.
As I'm watching the Gulf of Mexico birds which are totally covered with black oil stains, I can relate to their suffering as a Saudi woman. These birds can hardly move: they have no control over their lives, and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi womens lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it most of my life.
For decades, women in Saudi Arabia under the Saudi male guardianship system live like these hapless birds that are keeping you worried days in and days out. Saudi women have been deprived of their rights to be treated as full citizens. That system prevents mature women from living a normal life. It prevents a woman even from receiving medical care, or to travel without getting permission from a male guardian--a guardian who may even be her own 16-year-old son. Saudi women have no right to take any decision regarding their own personal affairs; a man has to do that for them.
Birds of the Gulf of Mexico and women in Saudi Arabia suffer similar circumstances; they have been trapped in their own habitat under very harsh circumstances and they need help to gain their lives back.
When you meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, please help his majesty see the effect the Saudi male guardianship system has on Saudi women. Children need guardians; mature women do not. Thank you. Sincerely yours, Wajeha Al-Huwaider
Those of us reading this in most places in the world, have freedoms of an unprecedented nature, freedoms, which to our fellow Saudi women, remain illusory, at best.
Saudi Arabia is at a unique point in history and at a unique theological cusp, perched there at one of the most precarious times in Islamic history. Perhaps not since the early formation of Islam has the Muslim Ummah felt so unsettled, conflicted and uncertain.
By unfettering Saudi women from travel, driving and dress restrictions, not only will half of the 26 million living in the Kingdom finally be able to exercise personal choices in very personal decisions, but the Kingdom will find itself rapidly shoring new support in both the Muslim and non Muslim worlds, support we can use as the globe unites to thwart the nihilist, fanatical elements which seek to threaten all existences on every continent.
Makkah is home of the massive turbine of Islam that generates the spiritual current illuminating 1.56 Billion around the globe. When this turbine finally begins to rotate in the interests of Muslim women, we will become orders of magnitude more enlightened, more tolerant, more educated, more mobile and more engaged in efforts which will ultimately liberate disadvantaged, abused and helpless women everywhere. Whether a blue-meshed incarcerate in the North West Frontier, whether a silent wife in the godless backwaters of Baluchistan, whether a raped mother in the dust bowls of Darfur, whether a prepubescent child facing genital mutilation in the morasses of Somalian misery, Saudi women will be able to advocate for fellow Muslim women with new confidence and real reach. Their voice becomes every woman's.
Saudi Arabia: its time to ante up and empower your women, Saudi women and show the world you fear not the choice of powerful women. Put Saudi women in the driving seats of their GMC Suburbans, their Mercedes, their Suzukis, their Toyotas. Put Saudi women in the driving seats of their travel, their businesses, their decisions, their health, and just watch the rest of the Muslim world sit up and take note.
As the epicenter of Islam, Saudi women will generate ripples of admiration, courage, panache and power. Let us not forget the first Muslim was in fact a woman. Empowered Saudi women will generate confidence, force and hope which will course around the globe to dispel the shame, darkness and misery surrounding so many of our fellow Muslim women who have no such opportunity, no such Monarchy, no such King, no such legacy, lets face it no such GDP, or above all, no such voice.
Though their wings remain clipped, Saudi women are no longer Invisible. They have the ability to speak for the voiceless, powerless, and helpless. In this work, we will find they are a beacon and quite simply, peerless because of their empathy with knowledge of generations of confinement. It's time to set the brave, beautiful birds of the Kingdom free. Release them. Let them soar through the sandstorms, crest on the hot eddies of the Shamaal, and ascend, ascend, ascend. Let them ascend veiled, or not, niquabed, or not, hijabbed, or not. Let them express themselves as they choose, let them be the maker of their own directions, let them rise to meet their own destiny.
If I can paraphrase Bono, Saudi women are stuck in a moment, but its one they can get out of. Quite simply, Majesty and Mr. President: in their elevation, lies all of ours.