Wednesday, 25 May 2011

South Africa must stand with the women of Saudi Arabia

I grew up in a country where more than half the population were treated as second-class citizens. Second-class humans. They were not allowed to go where they wanted to. They were not allowed to live where they wanted to. Their education was restricted to subject areas the government felt was appropriate for them. They were denied access to the basic human rights everyone else enjoyed, from freedom of speech to freedom of association. When they challenged these limitations, they were arrested. Sometimes they were even, ‘disappeared’ and/or brutally murdered. This horrifying system was called Apartheid and was reviled the world over. Today, thankfully (and thanks to the blood and struggle of many), South Africa has changed and all citizens, no matter what race or gender, are entitled to equal rights. Sadly, there are countries in the world which are still far from this ideal.

On Saturday in Saudi Arabia, a woman was arrested for driving a car. Women in Saudi Arabia face many restrictions – when and where they can be outside of their homes, who they may be seen talk to, where they can work and what kind of work they can do. Their freedom of movement, association and speech are restricted. They cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian. Every women, no matter her age, must have a male guardian. Women are not permitted to vote. Women are not even permitted to be seen without a full veil. Now women are demanding the right to drive. It is a simple thing, driving, but it gives freedom, mobility and independence. So far the government’s response has been to attempt to shut down the campaign.

Saudi women need the support of every person in the world who believes in equality. South Africans have seen the horror and degradation of the oppression of the majority on the basis of arbitrary physical features. We should be first to condemn this ongoing human rights tragedy. So far we’ve been silent, along with many other nations. The argument has been that Saudi women don’t want things to change. Well, Saudi women are saying, loud and clear, that they do want things to change. I don’t care what your culture, restricting the rights of half your population on the basis of gender looks an awful lot like Apartheid. It’s time for South Africans and the South African government to take a stand in solidarity with the women of Saudi Arabia.

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