Today, the streets of Riyadh are full of cars. Just like any other day in a major city, only this time, some of them are being driven by women. Saudi women, standing (or actually reclining, with hands at ten and two) for the right to have a conservative religious fatwa removed and for the right to move about their country, their businesses, and their lives with the same facility that is afforded to the men (sometimes as young as 14) of their country.

These ladies have organized for social change using social media and peaceful means to do so. I can’t help but draw one or two parallels with our own women’s suffrage movement ninety years ago. The first time Saudi women took to the streets was in the 90’s, in the unrestful atmosphere generated by female US soldiers driving in the streets on which they were forbidden to drive. The resultant protest at that time sparked a cultural clash symptomatic of strained US/Middle East relations in many different areas. So, too, did the first efforts at women’s suffrage in this country fizzle out. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott – two names we should recognize from our history classes – began their work in 1848. Susan B. Anthony (of the coin dollar fame) joined them in 1852.

Program for a 1913 march in DC for Women's Suffrage

Suffrage for women didn’t happen overnight. It took seventy years from the first concerted efforts to the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution. Our social media, connected, 24/7 news. internet-full lives can move things faster these days, without a doubt. The Stantons and Motts of the day had to physically travel to promote their ideals. They had to first find and connect with the like-minded, then they had to spread their word, in an unreceptive political climate and often in a communications vacuum, where very little of the groundwork they laid ever bore fruit for them to see.

The make-up of the US and the way our government operates forced the early suffragettes to seek approval at local and state levels before gaining a federal ear. This involved long years of efforts in numerous different statehouses, with vastly different cultures in between them. Some things have changed since then, but our system of government still hasn’t fundamentally changed from a hundred years ago. Civil Rights issues are nearly always pushed off on the states (let the states decide), so the advocates are fighting fifty small skirmishes rather than one large battle. As they progressed, they still devoted much of their resources into gathering like-minded, sympathetic folk and spreading the word both socially and legislatively.

But the women of Saudi Arabia are also skirmishing. Protests like the drive-in have happened before, never decisively victorious, but still nudging the way forward. Today’s driving assembly is a display that was coordinated through the internet’s instantaneous communication, and its results and effects are not only seen by the brave women who are standing up to the entrenched unfairness in their system, but by people all around the world plugged into YouTube and Facebook and Twitter.

Our communications systems have vastly improved, but change, especially civil rights, social change, still has to wait for people to catch up. The difference between those protests then and the protests now is that social media–and it’s the “social” part that’s critical here–has given the women of Saudi Arabia a means to gather each other, not just quickly assemble in a chosen time and place. Even with the immediacy of Twitter and Facebook, events in the Middle East’s “Arab Spring” are still built on the solid foundation of what came before–the protests that failed, the speakers who spoke up and were smacked down, but not before the seed was planted. The social media, however, gives us all a chance to see faster fruit, and to hear that yes, our seeds have been planted and are taking root.

Ladies, I wish you the very happiest of motoring, and may your peaceful assembly be free of fender benders and condemnation.

Links for Agents of Change

Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership – courtesy the University of Rochester

Saudi Women Drive Cars to Protest Ban – from BBC News

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