In a tough setback for aspiring Saudi female drivers, Saudi police have arrested female activist Manal al-Sharif, who boldly posted a video of herself behind the wheel online on Friday. Our Observer was with her for the symbolic drive.
More than 600,000 people watched the video of al-Sharif chatting with a friend as she drives around the eastern Saudi city of Khobar. The seemingly mundane scene is in fact anything but. Deeply conservative Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to ban women from driving.
Al-Sharif was reportedly arrested on May 22 while driving, released for a few hours then taken back into custody. A Saudi security official said she is being accused of “violating public order”, and will be held for five days while the case is investigated. The video she made was removed from YouTube following her arrest, as was the Facebook page she created calling on Saudi women to collectively defy the driving ban on June 17.
Nevertheless, a new Facebook page was created almost immediately, and the video survived on video sharing site YouTube, re-posted by Al-Sharif’s supporters.
Video of al-Sharif driving through Khobar, re-posted on YouTube by noramist.
“I think the context is increasingly favourable to Saudi women being allowed to drive”
Wajeha Al-Huwaider is a female Saudi activist and writer. She was the person who filmed Manal al-Sharif driving around Khobar. She spoke to FRANCE 24 before place before al-Sharif was arrested on May 22. Contacted by e-mail after the arrest, Al-Huwaider responded that it was “too risky to talk”, saying only that she believed authorities were deliberately “going hard on Manal to scare other women".
Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars on the same day to denounce the ban. In 2007, I filmed myself behind the wheel on International Women's day.
I’m under the impression that this mobilisation has somewhat changed mentalities inside the country, but I also see that authorities haven’t budged an inch. Our leaders are like many others in the Arab world: they don’t take their people’s opinions and aspirations into account.
“The fact that [Manal]uses new technologies like Facebook and Twitter means that she is capable of reaching a much bigger number of people”
When I saw Manal’s initiative of launching a ‘Women Drivers’ day on June 17, I immediately decided to help her. The fact that she uses new technologies like Facebook and Twitter means that she is capable of reaching a much bigger number of people. I remember in 2007 trying to rally my friends by email and over the phone: it was a much longer process. In just a few days, Manal has already alerted thousands of people [before her Facebook group was shut down, it counted over 8,000 members] and even gotten local media’s attention.
I think the context is increasingly favourable to Saudi women being allowed to drive. A growing number of women work, and need to be able to drive to their jobs. Their families are well aware that it isn’t viable for someone else to drive them every day.
I would like to point out that Saudi authorities say there is no written law forbidding women from driving, that it’s a self-enforcing customary ban. Nevertheless, if a woman does go out in her car, she can get arrested and brought to the police station. On what basis, since there is no law? It makes no sense, especially because women are not usually allowed to enter a police station…
“The King has to take the brave, necessary step of lifting the driving ban”
The King has gone a long way on women’s rights. He authorised co-ed universities, has made it legal for a women to be interviewed by media, etc. He now has to take a brave, necessary step and lift the driving ban.
I don’t know how the June 17 driving day will turn out. I’m a little worried by how things are shaping up on Facebook. Many men have rallied to support the movement, saying they are ready to protect the women who drive on June 17. But a few days ago, another group was created by mean who threatened to come beat those who escorted driving women with their Iqals [the heavy bands that hold Saudi men’s keffiyehs]. That’s the name they gave their Facebook page.
Saudi men have parodied the videos and mocked women’s will to drive. A Facebook page opposing the June 17 initiative counts over 4,200 angry and active members. Video posted on YouTube by lm2050.
Despite the publicity generated by Manal’s initiative, I don’t think much more than 50 women will actually dare go out to drive on June 17. So what I call on my compatriots to is, starting now, film themselves driving, even anonymously, and post the video on the Internet [Several women responded to the call and uploaded videos of themselves driving on al-Sharif's now cancelled Facebook page]. He have to put pressure on authorities, to let them know how many of us support this cause. I really hope I will get to see Saudi women drive in my lifetime.”
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.