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Manal al-Sharif is a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia who helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011. A women's rights activist who had previously filmed herself driving, Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed al-Sharif driving a car as part of the campaign. (Facebook/Facebook)
Manal al-Sharif is a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia who helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011. A women's rights activist who had previously filmed herself driving, Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed al-Sharif driving a car as part of the campaign. (Facebook/Facebook)

Women's rights

In protest of Saudi ban on women drivers, will any brave the road? Add to ...

When Manal al-Sharif posted video of herself on YouTube driving through Saudi streets in a black abaya, the authorities threw the 32-year-old single mother in jail for nine days.

The sentence was unusually harsh for someone breaking the kingdom's absolute ban on women drivers, and was taken as an expression of panic by the fundamentalist rulers, meant to stifle further dissent in a region convulsed with revolution.

Instead, Ms. al-Sharif's ordeal became a rallying cry. Amplified through social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, Saudi women began urging each other to defy the ban en masse, with their protest set to begin Friday.

But in a country that has so far proved immune to the protests sweeping across other parts of the Middle East, it remains unclear how many women are willing to risk arrest - or worse - by actually participating in the "drive-in."

While messages of support have flooded in on Facebook pages dedicated to the women's cause from people around the world, the White House has been conspicuously silent on calls for change in Saudi Arabia, a staunch political ally and oil partner. U.S. President Barack Obama did not mention the kingdom once in his speech about the Middle East last month.

One of the least optimistic people about the prospect for change in her country is Wajeha Al-Huwaider, one of Saudi's most prominent feminists.

"I have been working with Saudi women for so many years and I know what kind of women they are," she said in a telephone interview with The Globe And Mail.

"Their awareness of their own rights is not very well developed. They always accept the worst, take it and they live with it. They are very afraid after they saw what happened to Manal," explained Ms. Al-Huwaider, who is 49, a mother of two sons, and works in administration at Aramco, the state-owned national oil company.

A couple of weeks ago a campaign was launched on Facebook calling on men to beat Saudi women that participate in the protest with the cord used to hold their traditional headdresses. The page has garnered more than 6,000 "likes."

"What I am afraid of is that women drivers get caught by these crazy men who are threatening women. That they are going to crush their cars or attack them," Ms. Al-Huwaider said, echoing fears expressed online and in the pages of Saudi Arabian newspapers.

In 2008, Ms. Al-Huwaider posted a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia on YouTube. Last month, she filmed Ms. al-Sharif's illegal spin around town. Reaction to Ms. Al-Huwaider's first video was relatively muted. The latest one has attracted international attention.

The difference is one of timing, she says.

"Right now, the whole world is looking at what's going on in the Middle East, so when Manal decided to protest, people thought it was the start of an effort to overthrow the government," she explained.

Which, in fact, was not the case: "We are not against the government. We just want to be able to drive," she said.

And what about the recently released Ms. Al-Sharif, whose decided to defy the ban one night when she was trying to get home to her five-year-old son and couldn't find a cab, or reach her brother to pick her up on the street where men had begun to harass her as she walked alone?

"She is back to her normal life," Ms. Al-Huwaider answers. The elder feminist said she will not take part in Friday's protests because her driver's licence, obtained while on holiday in Bahrain, has expired.

Nor will Ms. Al-Sharif.

As a condition of her release, she was forced to pledge never to drive a car again.

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