Saudi media is preoccupied with the phenomenon (threat?) of women’s driving. Today, we have scattered stories, ranging from Manal Al-Sharief’s withdrawal from the women’s driving protest as she seeks to get out of jail, to an op-ed seeing this movement as ‘Arab Spring Lite’.
This Saudi Gazette story about Manal’s pulling back also reports on a strange allegation carried in the Arabic daily Al-Watan that she was ‘put up to it’ by unnamed women in jail with her. She was in jail before she was detained for driving? If so, that’s a rather important detail to have been neglected. This aspect of the story needs a lot more explaining as from here it looks like an attempt to trash her reputation and to cast the enterprise as the work of ‘foreign agents’, a typical ploy used by cultural conservatives to denigrate anything that suggests change. Manal Al-Sharief denies the allegations.
Al-Sharief to withdraw from driving campaign
DAMMAM: Manal Al-Sharief, the 32-year-old Saudi woman detained for driving a car in Al-Khobar Saturday, intends to withdraw from the campaign for women to drive, a source at the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) said Tuesday. The source said members of the NSHR met with Al-Sharief at Dammam’s Women’s Prison for 90 minutes and described her condition and treatment as “good”.
“Manal wants to be released,” the source said. “She said the investigation had been carried out and that she will withdraw from the campaign calling for women to drive cars.” The source added that the NSHR had contacted the Ministry of Interior requesting Al-Sharief’s release.
Arab News has a peculiar op-ed with a headline that baffles me. What ever does Saudi women’s driving have to do with NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, an American racing institution)? While there are few female drivers in NASCAR, I can’t see how there’s any parallel with women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. Still, the piece makes a few points and provides links to the Facebook and Twitter groups growing around the protests.
Will Saudi women drivers make Nascar nervous?
This could be the most peaceful variant of The Arab Spring we have seen to date. Or it could turn out to be very painful. And very scary.
The big event will take place in Saudi Arabia. There, from June 17 onward, hundreds of women will be — wait for it — driving their own cars. No male family members. No professional drivers. Just women. Driving.
To pull this off without ending up in the slammer, the women came up with an idea: “What if we set a date where any woman around Saudi who has a driver’s license” can go in public and drive? We are hoping to collect as many supporters as we can, if we succeed of collecting 100s in major cities, and all of them start driving June 17 and forward, it will be so much hectic for authorities and it will force them to look at our issue.”
They explained further: “We are not demonstrating or going out in groups. It will be individual act and we asked all brave women who will participate to video tape themselves and post it on our Facebook page for the rest of the world to see and to prove that we can do it and to encourage those who are afraid to take that step.”
A spokesperson for the group — known as “Women 2 Drive” — said, “We tried and tried to get our voice heard, but we have been faced with ignorance, it’s time we simply take an action until they accept sitting with us on the same table… and listen.
Meanwhile, in Buraidah, an archly-conservative city in Qassim province, a woman was detained while driving. After she was hauled off to the local office of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, she had to undergo the ritual humiliation of having her male guardian come in to get her released after she signed an ‘undertaking that she would not drive again.’
The question still remains, though: If there is no law prohibiting women from driving—and we are constantly assured that there is no such law—then under what law, under what authority are these women being arrested? An Arab News article says that Al-Sharief was arrested for breaking ‘general rules’. What, pray tell, are ‘general rules’? They’re not written, so are they simply understood from birth? Are they uniform across all regions? (Clearly not, as the fact of women driving in Asir makes clear.) Or are they simply an authoritarian club, convenient to use whenever someone with a modicum of power feels threatened?
In its coverage of the story, Asharq Alawsat points out that no one can seem to find either religious or civil laws that prohibit women’s driving. It may take, however, an act of government to codify the law, to put it in black and white.
It really is time for the government to clarify the situation. It needs to either write a law proscribing women’s driving or it needs to make it perfectly clear to police, both civil and religious, that these women are within their rights and are not to be prosecuted/persecuted.