By Kirsten Magas
Photo by Carina Lourdes Staiti Elizondo

Driving in Saudi Arabia

Until 2018, the punishment for a woman driving in Saudi Arabia ranged from enduring physical abuse from police to confiscation of her and her husband’s passports for a year. On 6 November 1990, 47 women decided to drive in the Saudi Arabia capital of Riyadh to protest the driving ban. As a result, no legal change was made, only arrests. Many of the women were fired from their places of employment, and the name “driver”, as trivial as it may sound to the rest of the world, plagued their criminal record, which kept the women from any new job opportunities.

A decade passed. All 47 seemed to quietly return to their normal life until the rise of the Internet and the heyday of YouTube.

One woman, Wajeha al-Huwaider, filmed herself driving for International Women’s Day and posted the video on the video-sharing website YouTube on 8 March 2008 as a reminder for the rest of the world that not much had changed for the women in Saudi Arabia since the ‘90s. She continued to drive even after her arrest. By her side was Manal al-Sharif, and the two, together, founded Women2Drive using Facebook in 2011, which allowed women across Saudi Arabia to organise.

By the summer, 70 women were driving to protest, and Princess al-Taweel publicised her opposition to the driving ban on U.S. radio station NPR. The movement persisted until the King of Saudi Arabia publicly recognised that women driving is not in conflict with Sharia in 2017. Although the ban was lifted and women began acquiring driver’s licenses in 2018, the leaders of the Women2Drive campaign remained in prison and endured torture while there.

Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been referred to as “the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman” on account of the prevalence of sexual violence against women. There have been around 40,000 reported cases of rape in the DRC. However, it is no secret that most cases of rape go unreported worldwide, not to mention safety concerns which prohibit surveyors from reaching certain regions of the country as a civil war rages in the east. The estimated total cases is close to 200,000.

Women in the DRC are raped by militia groups, those above them in status and their own husbands. Even the foreign aid workers, who have sworn to cause no harm, have raped Congolese women. This is the reason behind the protests that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which resurfaced last October.

Around 3,500 lawyers and survivors of sexual violence marched with a total of 5,000 people at the DRC province of Bukavu, backed by peace laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege and his foundation, on 1 October 2020. Three other protests occurred simultaneously in cities throughout the DRC.

Western culture has a habit of spinning a victimised narrative on other parts of the world. Let us acknowledge that “victim” is not an identity for Congolese women. The movement Nothing Without the Women focused on this idea, advocating for the recognition in the DRC and using protest as a means to practice their political agency.

In 2015, the organisation collected over 200,000 signatures on a petition to revise electoral laws to include women and mailed it to the President of the National Assembly.

Meanwhile, women united across the country to organise marches in Bukavu, Nuvira and Goma throughout the summer. By August, the Parity Law passed. Today, the women of the DRC push for representation in their government and demand justice for their endured violence.

A 2020 Win for Argentina

Unlike our Polish sisters, the women of Argentina celebrated a victory last year with abortion becoming legalised in the South American country right as 2020 came to a close, but change did not happen overnight. The ‘green wave’ has been advocating for reproductive rights since 2018. The iconic green handkerchief has long been recognised as a symbol for the movement in Latin America. The color green has been associated with the pro-choice movement, and the unmistakeable handkerchief calls back to Argentinian history of using white handkerchiefs to protest kidnappings and killings in the era of dictatorship.

The protests at the Congress building in Buenos Aires last May were not efforts wasted for the thousands of women in attendance. With 350,000 illegal abortions taking place every year prior to 2020, women took a huge risk.

Before the passing of the law, abortion was was a criminal offence. Women faced one to four years in prison for abortion. Lifting the ban is expected to improve the health of women across the country, as abortion is the leading cause of maternal death. With Argentina leading the way, women across Latin America hope that neighbouring countries will follow in their footsteps.

A Fight for Reproductive Rights in Poland

One of the most monumental strides in contemporary women’s rights is the right to choose. Although it is a controversial subject, abortion is a practice that has existed since ancient times, but it started to become an issue of the law from as early as the 16th 20th century.

Reproductive rights vary from country to country. Even within a single nation, restrictions are enforced and removed repeatedly in the exchange of liberal and conservative administrations. Although the U.S. legalised abortion across the nation with the case of Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, states, like Louisiana, which banned abortion after the fetal heartbeat is detected, can enforce national laws differently on a state level.

For countries in the European Union, most have legalised abortion. Poland was already known as a country with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, alongside Ireland, but those laws became even more restrictive.

The first law was passed only a few months ago, last October, ruling the termination of a pregnancy with fetal defects to be unconstitutional. The passing of this law is the strictest laws passed since 1993. A second law to restrict abortion was passed in late January, which ruled that abortion only be allowed only in cases where the pregnancy is a result of a criminal or incestuous act or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

Following each law passing, objectors protested. Thousands of women took to the streets of Warsaw, holding signs and flying rainbow flags to protest the decision of the conservative leaders. Behind these protests is the organisation Women’s Strike, founded by activist Marta Lempart.

At the protest in January, Lempart was charged with causing an epidemiological threat amid the COVID-19 restrictions despite the prevalence of masks at the protest. But change cannot wait.

While we should embrace progress and acknowledge all of the efforts and strides women are making towards equal rights all around the world, we cannot get too comfortable with progress.

Women are still making major changes in the world today, and we must be changemakers alongside them. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us educate ourselves on the women outside of ourselves, our mothers, and our sisters.