Najla Hariri: Fighter for Change in the Driver Seat

“We hope that soon, driving schools will officially open and the issuance of driving licenses for women would start in Saudi Arabia.”

Najla Hariri is a Saudi Arabian mother of five and a new grandmother to one. She got married at the age of 19, paused her education and travelled with her husband for 25 years outside of Saudi Arabia. she lived in Yemen, Bangladesh, Egypt, London, Dubai, and now resides in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She continued her education at the age of 35 and now holds a diploma in interior design and the merit of a fighter for change, freedom, and justice. 

“When I went back to live in Saudi Arabia, I faced a lot of obstacles as a woman, unable to live a normal life and go through daily activities without a Mehrem (a male companion). So I started demanding my rights that have been mentioned in the Quran and Sunna, rights that have been canceled by traditions,” she says. Najla Hariri started raising awareness about these rights using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. She also talked about them with family members, who have been very understanding to her cause, “But I don’t deny others who oppose me out of worry and fear for me,” she adds.

She also doesn’t miss out on the chance to raise awareness in other social gatherings and so far, she thinks that they’re progressing. “Throughout the different social levels, awareness is increasing, but of course there are still others who object to our call for change using excuses such as ‘we are better off than others,’ or ‘that’s how we were raised’ but we are continuously demanding our rights,” she shares.

One of the rights Hariri was fighting for was her right to drive. Saudi Arabia is known for being the only country in the world to practice the infamous driving ban on women. Senior clerics claim that if women drove, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce would become prevalent and premarital sex will become the norm. In 2011, the Women2Drive initiative was born and several women took to the streets to drive. Manal Al Sharif was one of the women who had filmed herself driving and was arrested for it. Her case only helped her and the cause because it claimed great international attention and since then, the number of supporters for this fight is increasing daily.

The driving ban isn’t the only form of discrimination or injustice practiced on women, though. “We are deprived from a lot of rights. We aren’t allowed to get an education, healthcare, to work or perform any other activity without the permission of a guardian or a Mehrem,” Hariri says. Hariri adds that a very clear example for this prejudice is that women aren’t unable to undergo any surgery in a governmental hospital without the approval of their guardians.

Hariri holds an international driver’s license and her first driving experience in Saudi Arabia was when she had to take her son to school as the driver suddenly left work. “Just like me, thousands of other women suffer from their incapability of running errands, going to the hospital, going to work or to study. It is a daily struggle to wander the streets in the sun, looking for a taxi because of the lack of public transportation, or to plead to a brother or a relative to drive us around,” she says.

Hariri has recently signed two petitions along with many other members of the society, both men and women hoping that their voices would reach the king and for him to finally order the lift of the ban. With the recent and relevant changes taking place through revolutions or uprisings in neighboring Arab countries, it has been creating a domino effect and a wave of change covers one country at a time. “Arab countries have the greatest influence, they’re inspiring and they show us hope for change, but all of our demands are regarding societal issues and rights and we don’t call for any political change,” Hariri explains.

A year since the initiative to defy the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia has passed and even though this ban hasn’t been dissolved yet, Hariri believes that change did occur. “We started calling for driving on the 17th of June, 2011. Since then, a lot has changed. The society’s awareness of this issue’s legality and legitimacy has risen, the authority’s reactions have become less severe, and we hope that soon, driving schools will officially open and the issuance of driving licenses for women would start in Saudi Arabia. This is the hope and as for the execution, ‘Allah Karim’ (God is generous),” she tells us.

Within the next few years, Hariri aspires to have accomplished several matters. “We are working on demanding the legalizing of Sharia, through the establishment of personal status laws based on Quran and Sunna, requesting the cancellation of the guardianship and Mehrems, and declaring the woman capable of handling all issues by herself,” she says. Groups of women, according to Hariri, are now working on finding legal and equitable ways and mechanisms to start this process.

“We admit that the guardianship is mentioned in the Quran. But it is to be mandated, it’s not legislative. It is there for the man to cater to a woman’s needs. But not all women have this option. There are widows, divorcees and those who are stuck in between, neither divorced nor married. All these women’s life affairs come to a halt if their guardians aren’t fulfilling their duties. What we’re calling for is for women to take on their own affairs and this will be facilitated by the cancellation of guardianship and allowing women to exercise their full civilian rights,” she explains.

Hariri and others don’t believe that they’re calling for much, “We’re only fighting for the rights and privileges that Islam has honored us with. I believe that Islam honored us but unfortunately customs and traditions and the patriarchal interpretation of religion disabled and prohibited us, freezing our rights to live a normal life that millions of women around the world lead.”

Even though many people have a stereotyped idea of a Saudi Arabian woman’s role in society as very limited, Hariri believes that the Saudi Arabian woman is one of the bravest women on the planet, “Because in spite of all the obstacles she’s faced with, she was still able to reach high and important positions in the country like Deputy Minister, University President or Dean of a Faculty and many other posts.”

She believes that the obstacles are in fact huge but the with the continuous fight for their rights and the clarification that Islam doesn’t prohibit them, they can succeed in their fight. “Now after the latest decisions to allow women in the Shura council and the municipal councils, we hope that the women will be able to advance and progress more and contribute to renaissance of the nation,” she says.

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