By Marley Gibbons
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Official Saudi reaction to the women's driving campaign may be taking a harsher turn, with five women arrested this week. As usual, the e-mail alert about the situation came from Change.org, which is supporting the cause every way it can.
Saudi Women for Driving has earned statements of support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, news sources reported.
The driving campaign is the leading edge of a wider push for autonomy and citizenship. Saudi women must be accompanied in public by a male relative, may not dine alone in restaurants and have fewer educational opportunities. They do not have the right to vote in all elections and they can't travel outside Saudi Arabia without a male relative as a companion. Many work outside the home, but a driver's weekly salary--of $300 or so--eats up their income.
Many Saudi activists see driving rights as an essential stepping stone towards future progress. "I can't say I want a woman minister, I can't say I want to see democracy . . . I can't say all of these things without being able to drive a car," Eman al-Nafjan, said in a phone interview.
No Saudi law explicitly bans Saudi women from driving. It is part of a religious edict issued by the Islamic council that advises King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
"This won't be resolved until the King says so," said al-Nafjan.
Abdullah al- Alami, a Saudi writer and economist, said in an e-mail that he is encouraging an advisory group to the king to consider women's right to drive. But he said any change must come from within. "I do not encourage getting outside groups involved in our internal affairs."
Boston free-lance journalist and activist Trisha Calvarese says she was drawn to the cause while covering the Middle East. "I literally just made some friends on Facebook," she said in a phone interview.
Calvarese launched a solidarity effort a few months ago -- Honk for Saudi Women Driving--that calls on women around the world to post YouTube videos of themselves honking car horns in support.
After she posted a few "Honk" videos, a supporter from France offered to help. He and his team at Kinomap, a video-sharing platform site based in Douai, France, developed a smartphone application that supporters could use to upload "honk" videos to the "Honk for Saudi Women Driving" YouTube channel.
The channel's roughly 50 videos so far include a dozen that Saudi women shot of themselves driving on June 17 and since then. Others come from supporters in Australia, Sweden and England.
Saudi women have conducted right-to-drive demonstrations before. Joffe-Walt recalled an occasion in 1990 when 47 women drove cars around Riyadh for a half hour. The drivers and their husbands were banned from leaving the country for a year and those with government jobs were suspended from working, NPR reported. In 2008, a now well-known Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaiderposted a YouTube of herself driving in the suburbs of Riyadh, said the AFP.
The latest effort began on May 22, when Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old single mother and computer technician working for an oil company, was arrested and detained in Riyadh, for posting videos of herself driving on YouTube.
These efforts got the most media attention globally, Joffe-Walt said, because campaigners turned to the Internet to spread information.
Given the distinctive restrictions on Saudi women, many activists decline to link women driving efforts to current revolutionary movements in the region. But no women were jailed for driving on June 17 and some activists say regional politics may help explain the government's initially tolerant response.
One Saudi woman who drove with her mother for about 15 minutes during a rush hour demonstration on June 22, told Women's eNews in a phone interview that police actually protected them from the hostility of some male drivers.
Until now, the mild official response could mean King Abdullah is biding his time and seeing how it plays out in the international community as well as in the Saudi religious establishment, said Joffe-Walt.
But the arrests of the five drivers this week heightens the suspense about how the kingdom will react.
After her release from jail on May 3, al-Sharif's lawyer Adan al-Salah, said she voluntarily signed a pledge to end her Women2Drive campaign, which designated June 17 as the women's day of driving. But Wajeha al-Huwaider, her close friend, told the Guardian she was "certain" silence was a condition of her release from nine days in prison.
Human Rights Watch reported May 22 that al-Sharif's YouTube videos of herself driving had been removed from the Web and her phone, according to several news sources, had been turned off.
Al-Sharif's video was preserved by anonymous supporters and can be found online
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Marley Gibbons is an editorial intern at Women's eNews.
Honk for Women Driving Campaign
Support from Western political figures