Manal al-Sharif was arrested around 4am last Sunday from her house by plainclothes police and detained at the Khobar Police Station Criminal Investigation Unit. The 32-year-old Saudi woman is spending the rest of the week in prison for the crime of driving: Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women, Saudi and foreign, from driving.
Last Thursday, al-Sharif — an information technology specialist with the state-run oil company Aramco — had a friend, Wajiha Howeidar, videotape her as she drove. She then posted the video on YouTube. Al-Sharif also videotaped an online message about how women could participate in the June 17 driving protest. That video became inaccessible after her arrest, as the New York Times Lede blog notes. So did the other clip in which she described how women could participate in a mass drive on June 17, as well as a Facebook page entitled “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself” created by al-Sharif and other women. A Twitter account that al-Sharif used was “copied and altered to make it seem as if she had called off the campaign.”
Both videos have been reposted and a replica of the Facebook event page created.
The disappearance of the videos and Facebook page suggest that someone is quite aware of the pivotal role such social media tools played in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and in spreading information around the world.
Interviewed by New York Times, Wajiha Howeidar noted that a women caught driving is not usually treated — arrested on “charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her cause” — as al-Sharif has been:
“Usually they just make you sign a paper that you will not do it again and let you go. They don’t want anybody to think that they can get away with something like that. It is a clear message that you cannot organize anything on Facebook. That is why she is in prison.”
The “they” Howeidar refers to are Saudi Arabia’s “religious puritans” and conservative clerics for whom “the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions.” Before al-Sharif’s protest and arrest, others had been debating the ban:
One argument endorsing the change is that women drove donkeys in Koranic times, with a television cleric noting in recent days that handling a donkey was actually harder than driving a vehicle. Supporters believed that the changes sweeping the Arab world made it the right moment for women to seize the initiative.
An online petition addressed to King Abdullah, asking him to free Ms. Sharif and grant women the right to drive, gathered signatures from more than 600 men and women after it was organized by Walid Abu al-Khair, a Saudi lawyer and human rights advocate. Saudis are often reluctant to publicly attach their names to political actions.
Not all women support lifting the ban; some say that creating such a stir about the one issue of driving could “set back efforts to gain more fundamental freedoms like voting or ending the legal guardianship that allows Saudi men to control virtually every aspect of women’s lives.” In her video instructing others how to participate in the June 17th protest, Al-Sharif herself had highlighted the basic issue of the economic cost to women who are not allowed to drive: Currently, women must hire a driver for $300 – $400 a month. If they are unable to afford this, they have to rely on male relatives to get to work or go anywhere.
History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered. And that’s why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men -– by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office.
But will Obama hold the Saudis to his own words about the equality of women by empowering them to drive?
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