Saudi Arabian Activist Arrested For Urging Women To Drive

May 23, 2011

Break the law, go to jail.

So it is here, often, and so it is too in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Even if the "law" is one not found in any other country, not officially codified in law, enforced only by self-appointed religious police, and viewed with emotions ranging from perplexity to contempt by much of the rest of the world.

In this case, it's the restriction against women driving. Manal Al-Sherif, who had advocated for authorities to lift the driving ban, and used social media to urge women to take to the roads on June 17.

The 32-year-old woman was taken in for questioning on Saturday by Saudi Arabia's religious police, who patrol looking for potential violations of the Wahabi sect's strict interpretations of Islamic law. The religious police, resented by at least some Saudis, have the power to question and detain citizens they deem to be insufficiently observant.

According to the Twitter account of the campaign, called "I will drive starting June 17," she was released several hours later, though authorities retained her car. She was then detained again, the second time within 10 hours, and is being detained for five days for "violating public order."

The latest Twitter updates can be found using the hashtag #FreeManal.

'Oil Barrels, 2008' (detail) by Chris Jordan

'Oil Barrels, 2008' (detail) by Chris Jordan

A group of Saudi women, Al-Sherif among them, started a Facebook page advocating that women be taught how to drive so they could protect themselves in dire situations, such as a heart attack on the part of the male drivers families must hire if women are to travel at all.

She posted a video of herself driving in the Saudi city of Khobar, though that video is now private and cannot be viewed by the public.

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal spoke out against the ban earlier this year, though not on the grounds of civil rights for women, but for more practical reasons. Saudi Arabia is facing a shortage of male drivers, with more than 750,000 non-Saudis currently working as drivers in the country.

The country would like to send them home, giving the work to Saudi citizens, but the jobs go begging.

A previous effort urging women to drive, in 1990, did not end well for the activists who defied the ban publicly. They were arrested, widely portrayed as prostitutes or woman of low moral standard, and were forbidden from traveling. Those who worked (which requires permission from male relatives) lost their jobs.

[Al Jazeera, Storyful, Washington Post]

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