Saudi Arabia: Call for release of activist challenging ban on women drivers

The international solidarity network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) calls for the immediate release of Manal Al-Sharif. Saudi authorities have arrested an activist who launched a campaign to challenge a ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom. The media spokesman of the Directorate General of Prisons in Saudi Arabia, Colonel Dr Ayoub Ben, has confirmed that Manal Al-Sharif has been charged with breach of public order and security, and with ‘deliberately inciting the media and other Saudi women’ to drive cars. She will be detained for a further five days pending investigation. There are reports that Al-Sharif has signed a pledge in prison not to drive again in Saudi Arabia. UPDATE: Al-Sharif’s prison sentence has been extended for a further ten days, starting from Thursday 26 May. Women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider was called in for questioning by her employers, Saudi Aramco, regarding her support for Manal, and forced to sign a pledge not to support the 17 June campaign. Al-Huwaider added the disclaimer that she will continue demanding the right of women to drive through different channels until it is codified into law.

Manal Al-Sharif, a 32 years old IT security consultant at Saudi Aramco, posted a video on the internet of her behind the wheel, talking about the challenge of having to rely on drivers. The YouTube video, posted on Thursday 19 May, and which appears to have been taken down, attracted more than 500,000 views and shows Manal Al-Sharif, who learned to drive in the US, driving her car in Khobar in the oil-producing Eastern Province. "Police arrested her at 3am this morning," said Maha Taher, another activist who launched her own campaign for women driving four months ago to spread awareness of the issue (Source: Reuters in Jeddah).The campaign Al-Sharif launched is aimed at teaching women to drive and encouraging them to start driving from 17 June, using foreign-issued licences. Anti-driving campaign have called for punishment for women who seek to drive men. Among these calls is a campaign demanding all men to beat up women attempting to drive. The men have been told to use their igals (head bands) to strike women behind the wheels in the streets.

"I'm worried a lot about Manal because they might make a court case against her. The problem is there's no written laws in Saudi Arabia. It all depends on the judge's mood and his interpretation." said Al-Huwaider. Although there is no written law that specifically bans women from driving, there are fatwas issued against women driving and citizens must use locally issued licences which are not issued to women, making it effectively illegal for them to drive. "When the police stopped her they told her she violated the 'norms'. There is no law that says women can't drive in Saudi Arabia and this arrest is unjust. She is a role model for a lot of people and the arrest will provoke her supporters. Now more women want to drive," Taher said (Source: Reuters in Jeddah). In the early 1990s, members of a similar campaign were arrested and some were fired from their jobs. 

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) noted in its concluding comments on Saudi Arabia in 2008 that the concept of male guardianship over women (mehrem), although it may not be legally prescribed, severely limits women’s exercise of their rights under the Convention: “It is concerned that the concept of male guardianship contributes to the prevalence of a patriarchal ideology with stereotypes and the persistence of deep-rooted cultural norms, customs and traditions that discriminate against women and constitute serious obstacles to their enjoyment of their human rights. Other practices prevalent in Saudi Arabia, such as the de facto ban of women from driving, which is a limitation of their freedom of movement, also contribute to the maintenance of such stereotypes.” 

In the Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on her 2009 Mission to Saudi Arabia, Yakin Ertürk found that “the modern practices concerning women in Saudi Arabia stand in contrast to not only the role women played during early Islam but also vis-à-vis the laws and religious principles prevailing in the country. The contradictions in this regard are most apparent in the areas of women’s autonomy and participation in the public sphere.” Ertürk recommended that Saudi Arabia “Take measures, including through awareness-raising campaigns, to end the practice of guardianship and abolish existing legal provisions that require a guardian’s authorization, such as those pertaining to women’s travel or access to services or employment.”

"Justice and equality are the very basis of Islam as a religion for our times," says Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist, specializing in Islamic law, gender and development. "This ban goes against the spirit of Islam and cannot not be defended or justified in the name of religion; it is a patent manifestation of outdated social norms based on patriarchal readings of Islam's sacred texts."