Saudi Woman's Online Campaign for Right to Drive Hits Roadblock

Activist Manal al-Sherif is arrested for "violating public order"

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Two days after she posted a YouTube video of herself defying Saudi's Arabia's ban on women driving, Manal al-Sharif was arrested by police on Sunday, imprisoned for five days, and charged with "spurring women to drive, on the Internet, and inciting public opinion," Sharif's lawyer tells AFP today. The computer security consultant, who works at the state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, was first arrested on Saturday by religious and traffic police while driving in the eastern city of Khobar but released when she signed a pledge not to drive, according to the AP.

Sharif's lawyer explains that since the driving ban--the only one of its kind in the world--is based on a religious fatwa (edict) rather than a law, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, whose regime adheres to a strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, ultimately has the power to decide whether women should drive. In a recent interview with CNN, Sharif explained that she once had to walk for half an hour in search of a cab. "I was harassed by every single car because it was late at night and I was walking alone," she said. "A 32-year-old grown woman, a mother, crying like a kid because I couldn't find anyone to bring me home."
When Sharif hasn't taken her campaign to the road, it's played out largely online. She's part of a group, Women2Drive, which is calling for women to get behind the wheel on June 17 in a nationwide protest. The group's Facebook page--entitled, "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself"--was deactivated by authorities after more than 12,000 people pledged their support, according to the AP, but Facebook pages have since spring up in solidarity with the cause. Similarly, the campaign's Twitter account is gone but a Free_Manal Twitter feed is going strong. A petition circulating online urges King Abdullah to release Sharif and issue a decision on women driving.
Sharif's original video also appears to have been taken down, but you can still see the footage below. In the video, Sharif argues that women must be able to take family members to the hospital, and that poor people can't afford the live-in drivers Saudi families often hire to comply with the ban.
Sharif isn't the first person to challenge the driving ban. AFP notes that another Saudi woman, Najla al-Hariri, drove in the western region of Jeddah recently in protest and, in 1990, 47 women drove around Riyadh in 15 cars before being arrested. Many of the women were suspended from their public sector jobs, AFP explains, and their male guardians were punished. In this video from 2008, Saudi activist Wajiha Huwaidar, who spearheaded a petition to King Abdullah much like the one circulating today, explains why she's driving around on International Women's Day:
Why is the campaign against the driving ban gaining momentum again now? The Telegraph's Richard Spencer says King Abdullah has actually encouraged women to study and work, opened Saudi Arabia's first co-ed university, and appointed a female minister since assuming power in 2004, and that's spurred a "small but growing band of middle-class professional women" to agitate for more reform. He adds, though, that lifting the driving ban "seems as far away as ever."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.