JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Activists campaigned Tuesday for the release of a Saudi woman jailed for driving, while another woman reportedly flouted the ultra-conservative kingdom’s ban on women taking the wheel.
A Facebook page titled “We are all Manal al-Sharif: a call for solidarity with Saudi women’s rights,” had been “liked” by over 14,000 people Tuesday.
“It is not a revolution, it is not a plot, it is not a gathering and it is not a protest – we are only requesting to drive our cars,” one post on the page said.
And a petition launched by Gulf intellectuals calling for the release of Sharif had by Tuesday garnered over 300 signatures.
The petition, addressed to Saudi King Abdullah, demanded the release of Sharif, “pending a clear decision on the question of the right of women to drive.”
Sharif was arrested Saturday while driving in the Eastern Province city of Al-Khobar, a day after she posted a video on YouTube showing her behind the wheel.
“Manal did not want to harm anyone. She just wanted to prove that it was possible for a woman to drive in Saudi Arabia,” Wajiha Huwaidar, a women’s rights activist and writer who filmed the video of Sharif driving.
Huwaidar herself is a veteran of driving in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, she posted a video on YouTube showing her driving in the kingdom’s Eastern Province. She escaped arrest by not coming across a police patrol.
She said a venture Thursday when she accompanied Sharif driving was a success, but that Sharif may have subsequently been watched, leading to her arrest while driving Saturday.
She said Sharif belongs to a group of activists who are campaigning online for women to be permitted to drive. But asked if she thought the movement would amount to a broader push for reform, Huwaidar said no, as “there is no real civil society in Saudi Arabia.”
Human Rights Watch has called for King Abdullah to order that Sharif be released “immediately,” and slammed the driving ban.
“Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation – and, in fact, to mockery – around the world,” HRW senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke said. “King Abdullah should end Saudi Arabia’s pariah status in the world as the sole country banning women from driving,” Wilcke said.
According to Saudi daily Al-Watan, a 37-year-old Saudi woman who had repeated Sharif’s experiment in driving in the town of Al-Ras, northeast of Riyadh, was arrested at a supermarket by a police patrol accompanied by members of the religious police.
She was driving with her mother and aunt at the time, according to the newspaper, which said she was released a few hours later.
Sharif’s lawyer said King Abdullah “has the right to end the dispute” as the ban on women drivers was “based on a fatwa and not a final decree.”
“There is a good portion of society that accepts that a woman would drive, but the problem is the government still fears the extremists,” said Huwaidar.
But “there is a close link between the religious establishment and the state – they gave them the keys of the state, and that’s why there is no political decision about women driving,” she said. “They are still afraid.”