Manal al-Sharif Imprisoned For Proclaiming Her Right to Drive, Protesting Saudi Driving Ban(VIDEOS)

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.

As the Guardian points out, in his speech last week about US policy in the Mideast, President Obama said:

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?

Please sign the petition to release Manal al-Sharif and this petition to end the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.


Photo from a screenshot of a video of Manal al-Sharif driving on May 19, 2011, posted by noramist on YouTube.


Jane L.
Jane L6 years ago

Signed both petitions. Would've loved to see a translation in english of what she is saying in the YouTube video.

It is taken for granted that women in North America have the freedom to do such a basic thing as driving in our society. But given the political climate al-Sharif is in, I think it's spectacular to see a woman driving in Saudi Arabia. It's an empowering sight to witness!

I hope her statement becomes a catalyst for change in their society!

Lindsey DTSW
.6 years ago

A prohibition on women driving makes sense if a culture wishes to keep women from being fully independent. An inability to drive means a woman doesn't have the ability to fully handle life outside the confines of her home on her own. Doesn't have the ability to go where she wants when she wants. Doesn't have the ability to live her own life as she pleases without someone looking over her shoulder when she leaves the nest.

Yes, it makes a great deal of sense.

Considering that prejudicial attitudes towards women are endemic to a whole host of cultures throughout the world (and since the beginning of recorded history), it's proving exceptionally hard to root them all out and bring those cultures, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century when it comes to equality of the sexes.

Martha Nieto
Martha Nieto6 years ago

Signed both petitions. What a brave woman!

Linda E.
Linda E6 years ago

Congratulations Manal! You have more courage than most people, women or men. Thank you for standing, or sitting down in the drivers' seat, to make a statement heard around the world!

Joseph B.
Joseph B6 years ago

I am reminded of how freedom was violently crushed in Iran while president Obama did nothing-
Unfortunately this is the way of muslem countries- Oppressive and brutal- Until this behavior is universally condemmed it will continue-

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Bernadette P.
Berny p6 years ago

examine your religion,

examine yourselves,

examine what your are taught,

examine what you teach.

You might want to re-examine your use of and meaning for God.

Johanne S.
Johanne S.6 years ago

One does not choose the country of ones' birth: unfortunately.

myra dolgoy
myra d6 years ago

I signed both petitions as well.

myra dolgoy
myra d6 years ago

Very scary. I am so grateful to be living in Canada. I can not imagine what it IS like to live in the middle east.