Saudi Women Are Driving Toward Equality

Friday, 24 June 2011 21:46 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I received an exciting email this week that I believe summarizes Women’s eNews role in the grand scheme of things. In the email, the Women’s eNews marketing director let me know that the item we posted in our Breaking News Section on the Saudi women’s insistence they have the right to drive—by driving--was “tweeted” by two prominent Saudi bloggers to let others know that women around the world are watching their protest and to urge them on.

On Friday, June 17, more than a handful of women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel and simply drove. None was arrested or otherwise harassed unlike the month before when the leader of the we-will-drive movement was arrested.

To me, the tweeting of our news story by Saudi women is the realization of the mission of journalism, the mission of Women’s eNews and my personal mission.

For many news organizations, this event is a result of the Arab Spring movement. I am confident they are only partially correct.

I founded Women’s eNews 11 years ago out of a deep frustration about how the dominant media virtually ignored women’s issues. And to paraphrase a truism about history—and journalism is the first draft of history—if you cover the news conventionally, you cover conflict and political campaigns. If you cover news with women in mind, you cover the social movements—like Saudi women driving.

Women’s eNews launched an Arabic version in 2003 .We built the Arabic site for three reasons: We already had strong readership in the region—even back then; the U.N. issued a report that said that for peace to come to the region, the human capital of women had to be available to the economy and the region had to expand access to technology. And we had a donor who wanted a way to demonstrate to the region after the September 11 attacks that not all Americans wanted revenge.

I visit the region often, including a wonderful economic development conference in Jeddah in 2006.

There I met the women of Saudi Arabia—covered by their black abayas but also highly educated, often in the United States, and determined to make change—carefully, slowly but consistently.

I have a vivid memory of a young Saudi reporter—her face half covered with a niqab—asking me with intense curiosity how women got the vote in the U.S. I knew then there was no stopping them. They were talking about driving throughout the conference simply because without that right, they could not work outside the home—no public transportation.

I mailed back to my Saudi friends a copy of the film, “Iron-Jawed Angels,” about the U.S. women’s struggle for suffrage. Yes, the Saudi women want the right to vote, but for now they are focused on economic opportunity. Three cheers them!

Excerpted from Rita’s keynote speech at the Inernational Schools Services "Opening Minds Opens Doors" conference, June 19 - June 21, 2011.