Social media has revolutionized the Middle East. Before the Internet, governments had a stronghold on the people’s sources of information. Arabs and particularly Saudis saw the rest of the world through a governmentally sanctioned prism of demonization and conspiracy preached in our Friday sermons and even in our classrooms. It got so bad that in the early nineties, groups of volunteers would go around major cities shooting at any satellite dishes they could see peeking out from on top of house roofs. Conformity and intolerance of other perspectives was the order of the day. Saudi became the throbbing heart of ultra-conservativism in the name of Islam.

So when on November 6th, 1990, 47 Saudi women wanted to make a statement by driving their own cars, the backlash was overwhelming. Besides the fact that they were suspended from their jobs for two years and had their homes raided, they were socially alienated and a campaign with flyers and booklets was launched to condemn them and accuse them of moral degradation. Citizens were urged to contact the women’s male family members to tell them off. The one Saudi man, Saleh Alazzaz, who was there to support and photographically document their movement was arrested and spent several months in prison. What’s more outrageous is that more than a decade later, at the National Dialogue Forum of 2003, a prominent sheikh complained that some of these women were allowed to go back to their teaching jobs and so might negatively influence their students.

Forward to 2011, a similar movement began on June 17th. Again about 50 women got into their cars and drove. But this time around, the women who participated were much better prepared and had tools that in 1990 they would not have dreamed of. As expected, the smear campaigns were launched against the women, yet they were not half as successful as they were in 1990. Now the women had a platform for their message that went over the head of governmental and religious establishments. They were able to utilize Twitter, Youtube and Facebook to talk to the people directly about who they are and what they were calling for. This worldwide trend of citizen journalism or as some would aptly call it horizontal media, has been able to uncover much of what was barred from coverage in local media. For example the Saudi traffic police spokesman denied that there were any women who drove on June 17 while many of the women had uploaded video evidence and one, Maha Al Qahtani, had gotten a ticket from the traffic police which she photographed and tweeted. With 180 mobile phones for every 100 residents in Saudi according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and a 2010 240% increase in the number of Twitter users in Saudi, these women had a wide platform.

They not only used it to get their message across but also to connect with each other. Most of them did not even know of each other before connecting on social media. Meetings were organized; groups, tutorials and even secret driving lessons were arranged. As the women’s movement gets more and more sophisticated, I am increasingly seeing the potential for social entrepreneurship principles to not only help Saudi women in lifting the ban on driving but also to call for and raise awareness about the many other rights they are deprived of for cultural and political reasons. With the right resources, these women could truly push forward the feminist movement in Saudi.

Now that the women’s movement has established a net of people across the kingdom, it would be interesting to see what would happen if we collectively applied similar social norm entrepreneurship methods as those of the Tostan Community Empowerment Program. Tostan was created by Molly Melching in Senegal to end FGC and child marriages. Although FGC is practically non-existent in Saudi Arabia, we do have an issue with child marriages. There are no official statistics but according to an interview with AlRiyadh Newspaper on Jan/22/2010, a sociologist, Dr. Al Johara Mohammed, states that “among us there are more than 3000 Saudi girls aged no more than 13 years married to men of the age of their parents or grandparents”.  Most of these occur in rural tribal areas where an approach of raising awareness and involving the whole communities could actually turn things around in absence of an outright law banning the practice.

With all these new tools and advances infiltrating all the corner of the Earth, there’s no stopping the light of human dignity and rights shining into the darkest crooks and crannies of culturally and politically motivated human rights abuses.