Activists call for right to drive

  • Article by: TASNIM SHAMMA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 10:38 PM

Three Rochester women say they were fired for being female.

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Members of Gender Justice staked out a corner at Lake St. and 27th Ave. E. and passed out green ribbons and photographed people in a "cut out" car to call attention to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia who do not have the right to drive. Here, Khadija Bawazir, in scarf, and friend Rasha Kurban, driving, wave to Gender Justice members while driving off. Bawazir is of Yemini and Saudi descent and Kurban is Saudi.

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Three women from Rochester said they were limousine and shuttle drivers until all were fired on the same day.

They said they lost their jobs because members of the Saudi royal family, in Rochester last fall to visit the Mayo Clinic, objected to being driven by women.

A nonprofit organization called Gender Justice staged an event Friday in south Minneapolis to protest the alleged firings and Saudi Arabia's law prohibiting women from driving in that country.

Their event coincided with Women2Drive, a campaign in Saudi Arabia by civil rights activists that began Friday, to collectively defy the country's ban on female drivers and try to persuade officials to lift the ban. A female activist in Saudi Arabia, Mana Al-Sharif, recently was arrested for publicizing a video of herself driving.

At the south Minneapolis event, called Drive-In, Gender Justice approached cars in an East Lake Street shopping center and handed out leaflets and green ribbons for drivers to place on their cars. Group members also took about 100 photos of women driving and people posing behind a plywood cutout of a car. They said they will post the pictures on the group's website and send copies to the Saudi embassy.

The Gender Justice protesters, who are also the attorneys for the three women, Gretchen Cooper, Barbara Herold and Lisa Boutelle, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and went public this week with their complaints against three transportation companies and the Saudi royal family.

The women said they were hired on the same day, Oct. 1, 2010, and then fired the next day, after driving members of the royal family from the airport to their hotel.

Gender Justice said the EEOC received a response from an attorney for one of the companies involved, Premier Crescent Services, but has yet to hear from Crown Prince Limo, another Rochester-based company.

Premier Crescent, through its attorney Richard Wright, said in its response that it was not an employer. Calls and e-mails to Wright and Premier Crescent were not returned on Friday evening.

The phone numbers and e-mail addresses provided on Crown Prince Limo's website were not functional and could not be reached for this article.

Gender Justice co-founder Jill Gaulding said her group had done an investigation and believed Highland International Transportation Services, based in Sunnyside, N.Y., also was involved in employing one or more of the women.

"I have no idea, and I have never hired any women from Minnesota," said Hassan Eltigani, president of Highland International Transportation Services. "I called [Gender Justice], and I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. We're in New York.'"

Gaulding said she believed the three companies were joint employers and were pretending another company actually employed the women.

Cooper said that in 2008, when she had a previous job as a driver, she drove a visiting Saudi princess and other royal family members. She said it was "the best experience of her life" because the family was so friendly and kind toward her. So she was devastated when she was fired and no one stood up for her, she said.

"I've had private support from my Muslim male friends, but they couldn't publicly support me because their driving jobs would be at stake," Cooper said.

She said that since being fired, she has done odd jobs and cared for her family.

"It is really a frustrating daily experience for Saudi women," said Selma, a five-year resident of Minnesota who previously lived in Saudi Arabia and attended the protest with her husband. She asked that her last name not be used because she still visits Saudi Arabia and fears repercussions.

She said that while in her former country, she felt trapped because she had to rely on a hired driver. During part of the protest, Selma wore a black burqa, scarf and niqab over her plaid shirt and blue jeans and posed behind the green cut-out car with only her eyes visible and car keys in hand.

"Since it's posed as such a calamity to have female drivers in Saudi Arabia, a visual representation of how driving is not causing any social problem [here] might be persuasive," said Lisa Stratton, co-founder of Gender Justice.

Tasnim Shamma • 612-673-7603 Twitter: @TasnimS

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