Admirable Social Change: Change.org and Saudi Women Drivers

June 16, 2011; Source: Daily Caller | You probably knew that Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow women to drive cars.  Did you know that they can’t even ride bicycles? On Friday, June 17, Saudi women will challenge the driving prohibition. Around the nation, an unknown number of women will get behind the steering wheel and start their engines. Undoubtedly, the Saudi police will turn out to threaten and arrest the women drivers.

A group called Saudi Women for Driving is organizing this protest, roughly a month after Manal al-Sharif posted on YouTube a video of herself driving a Lexus. She was escorted to a nine-day jail sentence for her offense, but in the wake of the Arab Spring, Saudi women and their international supporters used social media – Twitter and Facebook – to get the message out and drum up support for Saudi women with the temerity to turn keys in auto ignitions.

What makes this a story of nonprofit interest is that Saudi Women for Driving was helped greatly by Change.org, an online website that supports activist causes all around the globe. At the top of the Change.org website today is the Saudi Women’s petition to get U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly support Saudi women’s right to drive. According to the Daily Caller, the Clinton petition has garnered over 100,000 supporters from 150 countries. Founded in 2006 by two Stanford University classmates, Change.org now has offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., 30 staff members, and a team of some 100 writers. The site features a number of efforts aimed at helping Saudi women, from pardoning Manal al-Sharif to ending the practice of child brides.

Do realize that this is serious – and dangerous – stuff. The Saudi women are planning the protest as a small scale effort, with no big announcements of predicted numbers, given how much difficulty women face not only from the government, but from their husbands, fathers, and brothers. A statement released by Saudi Women for Driving in a way makes you catch your breath: “The risk is high and women are scared. Some of us have been specifically named in Saudi media as ‘traitors,’ Saudi men have threatened to crack the windshield of any woman who tries driving tomorrow, and to beat up any Saudi woman who joined our Change.org campaigns. So this is not going to happen in one day, one week, or even one month. It’s just going to start tomorrow.” 

This is what nonprofits do, promote social change and support those who are the lonely activists starting social change movements. In this case, an American group is supporting women in the most oppressive (to women) country in the world. We all hope not only that the women who take to the streets in their cars in Saudi Arabia today are not arrested or worse by Saudi authorities – remember, clerics called for al-Sharif to be publicly flogged – but that their efforts begin to take the Arab Spring from Cairo and Tunis into Riyadh.—Rick Cohen