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SAUDI ARABIA The woman behind the campaign to allow Saudi women to drive

Manal may also lose custody of her son

By Pedro Pizano, Special to Gulf News
June 17, 2012

New York: One year ago today around 40 women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars, daring to claim their right and breaking the ban. Today, the Right to Dignity Campaign, known as “Women2Drive”, will present a petition to the King to change this draconian prohibition. It is signed by at least 760 people.

While there is no law against it, many have been arrested since last year only to be freed when they signed a statement saying they would never drive again, Shaima Jastania was sentenced to 10 lashes for it only to be overturned by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, and the interior minister formally banned driving right after that day. Two women have even sued the government because they refuse to grant them driving licences.

It was Manal Al Sharif, the Saudi woman who started the Women2Drive Campaign. As an employee of Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company owned by the kingdom, at the information protection management division, she was only one of only two women.

Part of her job benefits, included living in an Aramco employee town, in which, Saudi citizens enjoy a small amount of freedom. There are golf courses, cinemas, and, surprisingly, women drivers. Yes, women are permitted to drive inside the compound.

One day, trying to come home from a doctor’s appointment in a neighbouring town, Manal could not find a cab and her brother’s phone was turned off. She started walking. Men drove by with the windows down, hurling insults and lewd comments at her. One car even slowed down and doubled back to intercept her. On that day Manal feared for her life.

After hearing from coworkers the next day that there was no law against women driving, she asked herself, as reported by Women’s ENews, “I have a car and a driver’s licence. Why can’t I drive outside of Aramco?”

As Manal began to speak out and gain recognition for her activism, she was invited to various rights conferences outside of the country. Aramco time and time again denied her time off to attend the events. When she asked for permission to travel to Oslo last month to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum, she was refused, and in consequence, she resigned. Manal closed her Oslo speech with the following line: “the rain starts with a single drop.”

On May 10 the Oslo Freedom Forum published Manal’s speech on YouTube. Since then, the video has been viewed more than 315,000 times, mostly from viewers inside the Arab peninsula.

Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum’s YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying Manal as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam. As a result, Manal has been the target of thousands of attacks — on YouTube, Twitter, blogs, online news sites, and even print media in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi cleric Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring Manal a “hypocrite” — thereby questioning her status as a Muslim and placing her under further risk.

Manal lost her job, the mortgage on her house, her job prospects for the future, and, if she chooses to leave Saudi Arabia to find work, she may also lose custody of her six -year-old son.

In Saudi Arabia there is no public transportation. On average, Saudi women pay upwards of one-third of their salaries to drivers. There are more than one million private drivers.

 

Pedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum.

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