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Saudi women on the road to empowerment

May 29, 2011

A women’s movement is beginning to take shape in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia after a brave woman Manal Al-Sharif drove a car and posted videos to YouTube. Manal has been arrested but her brave initiative is already providing courage for other Saudi women to follow her footsteps.

The Guardian has learned that Saudi women are planning another mass drive within days to protest against a de facto driving ban in force across much of the kingdom. The event is being organised covertly with details circulated by email and text message in an attempt to catch the Saudi authorities off guard, human rights campaigners told the Guardian.

“There are many underground calls to take advantage of momentum and to do something right now,” said one female organiser, under anonymity. “People are talking about women going out and driving and it is not just women who are supporting us, men are too.”

Sharif was first released after just five hours only to be rearrested in the early hours of Sunday when the authorities learned she had posted a video and encouraged other women to do the same. It showed her driving through the streets wearing a headscarf and black sunglasses telling the camera in Arabic: “If a husband has a heart attack what is a wife to do if there no one else around and she can’t drive … Not everyone is able to afford a driver. It’s just too expensive for poorer families.”

In an earlier interview, she said she was inspired to organise the Women2Drive movement by the experience of Bahia al-Mansour, a 20-year-old student at King Faisal University who started to struggle in her studies after difficulties in arranging transport.

“Every lady has something to do in the city, she’ll just drive, do her business and come back,” Sharif told the Dubai-based Gulf News. “So, it’s as simple as that. People can’t call it a demonstration, we’re not going against the law, we’re not going against anyone, we’re not even demonstrating.”

Eman al-Nafjan, a teacher and PhD student in Riyadh who writes a blog under the name Saudiwoman, told the Guardian that Saudi conservatives and the wealthy were determined to keep women from driving because it blocks anyone who cannot afford a driver from competing for jobs.

“Only the upper middle classes have drivers and that gives so much power to them,” she said. “If you lift these obstacles then a lot of women will go out to work and society will change, they believe for the worse. Women will compete with men and they even believe it will cause more bastards to be left on the steps of mosques.”

Samar Badawi, a human rights campaigner also from Jeddah, said she believes only a minority of men would object to women driving.

“It would change everything if women drove,” she said. “Women would be able to go to hospital, take their children to school and do all this without a man. It would allow women to respect themselves if they drove their own cars. Maybe 15% of men would be offended, the rest would like women to drive. I know lots of women that drive, but Manal was the first to film it and put it on YouTube. This is why the government was angry.”

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