This article first appeared in The Globe in 2014
Bessma Momani is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Four years after the Arab Spring, we know of the revolutionaries who took to the squares and city streets to protest their governments' inept policies. What we don't know is that the fire of change remains burning among Arab youth.
They may not be taking to public spaces any more, owing to the political and military crackdown on them, but it would be wrong to assume the Arab people, especially the young, are happy about the status quo. After all, they are more educated, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, and hyperconnected than any previous generation, and they will not become complacent while being subjected to bad policies.
I had the honour of meeting one of these brave young people who continue to challenge the status quo. Loujain al-Hathloul is a 25-year-old Saudi woman who studied French literature in one of our very own Canadian universities as part of an ambitious Saudi government initiative to educate the next generation of leaders and citizens. There are some 20,000 Saudi students in Canada completing their postsecondary education and another 90,000 in the U.S. who are studying everything from engineering, medicine and business, to fine arts. The Saudi program of sponsoring and educating the next generation with a generous grant system is one of the best human capital investments any government has made in the Arab and Muslim worlds and it needs to be commended for it.
Ms. Hathloul is a product of this Saudi investment and is a great patriot who loves her country. Her studies in Canada taught her more than just the great literature of Foucault, but also the value and necessity of having safe mobility. Like many Saudi women living in Canada and the West, she drove a car. Many women who live in Saudi Arabia, however, must rely on male relatives, hired help, and a broken public transport system to get around.
Ms. Hathloul shared with me the trials of young women of her generation in Saudi Arabia: The lack of reliable and safe transport often puts them at the mercy of unscrupulous characters who can try to take advantage of, or profit from, their precarious situation. Add in the scorching heat of the desert kingdom and the stranded female waiting for her ride is an added health issue. For women who want to work or who must work to provide for families, their immobility can often mean the inability to make a living and add further dependency on already taxed family members. Young women who cannot work cannot afford to hire a personal driver, and the cycle of dependency is never broken.
Ms. Hathloul is like many young Saudi women who are educated abroad and well-travelled and who want to change their country for the better. They love many aspects of their great society – from its emphasis on family and generous Bedouin culture – but banning women from driving is no longer safe and holds no religious or cultural explanation that fits the modern century.
After her university education, Ms. Hathloul returned to Saudi Arabia and decided to challenge the law against driving by videotaping herself driving a car from the airport. The authorities arrested her father, who in Saudi law is a single woman's guardian, for her crime. Not wanting her elderly father to be punished in her place, she choose another tactic. She went to neighbouring United Arab Emirates for work and married a comedian and social media activist, who was one of the singers behind a hit Saudi YouTube video, No Woman, No Drive, about the trouble Saudi women face in the Kingdom and sung to the tune of Bob Marley's famous hit.
As a married woman, Ms. Hathloul knew her father was no longer responsible for her actions and so the newlywed decided to reignite the campaign for women to drive. One of the remarkable insights that I witnessed in Ms. Hathloul was her strong desire not to break Saudi law. In fact, she cleverly challenged taboos, but not the Saudi legal system. As she told me days before her next journey to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, the kingdom does not forbid women to drive, they just don't issue Saudi drivers' licences to women. She purchased a car in the UAE and obtained a UAE driver's licence. Then, taking advantage of a loophole that allows all Gulf Co-operation Council drivers to enter and drive in Saudi Arabia with GCC licences, she headed to the UAE-Saudi border. While stopped at the border for more than 24 hours, and getting hungry, she was joined by a Saudi friend from Twitter who had brought food. Today, both young women have been arrested by Saudi authorities and imprisoned for more than 25 days.
Ms. Hathloul has been referred to a special court for terrorists. This young woman is nothing of the sort; she wants to give her countrywomen the safety and comfort of being mobile. Like the hundreds of thousands of Saudi women educated abroad who are returning to their country, they want to bring back not just their valued degrees but their valued spirit for social betterment and change.