Empowering and educating women in oppressive regimes around the world is one of the best ways to elevate freedom and democracy in those areas. The spark of a freedom movement has caught fire in one of the worst places for women in the world: Saudi Arabia.
Manal Al-Sharif is the woman whose face is at the forefront of a new campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Like the flurry of protests before it this year, the “Women2Drive” movement demonstrates a powerful thirst for freedom in a place where little exists. If this movement succeeds, it could set a precedent for new liberties to be unveiled for Saudi women.
Al-Sharif was arrested on Saturday after violating the country’s de facto law against women driving
. It was the religious police—officially called the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—who were called to the scene after authorities stopped her while driving her brother and his family through the city. Though women aren’t legally prohibited from driving, religious fatwas have been issued against the act.
Previously, Al-Sharif had posted a YouTube video of herself driving alone through the city of Khobar, which only served to infuriate authorities more.
Al-Sharif’s inspiration for making a political statement came after working late one
night when she was unable to get a taxi or get in touch with a male family member to give her a ride. Female driving prohibitions make it difficult for women to attend school, go to work, and participate in public life. Poor women in rural areas—without the money for personal drivers or taxis—suffer most of all.
She was released Saturday but according to CNN was “forced to sign a form promising not to drive again.” On Sunday, police came to her home and arrested her again, and she remains in jail. She is charged with “besmirching the kingdom’s reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Arabia is arguably the most oppressive society to women in the world today, and outrage ensued when the “Women2Drive” movement came to life. The group’s goal was merely to attain permission for women to drive, and they had planned a symbolic move for women to drive around the country on June 17.
World Pulse reports the campaign did not call for demonstrations or group gatherings, but that any woman “willing to participate should just get in her car and go about her daily business without the driver.” They were also encouraged to videotape the experience. However, things have come to a halt since Al-Sharif’s arrest.
Online efforts including the website for “Women2Drive” have reportedly been eradicated by the Saudi government. Additionally, numerous Facebook pages against women drivers have evolved with overwhelming popularity.
The online censorship and anti-driving groups prove the need for those like Al-Sharif to take a stand if women are ever going to overcome anti-liberty factions moving against them. It also demonstrates that these women will require broad international support to succeed.
Internet censorship is just one of the troubling aspects of this case. Heritage’s Helle Dale writes, “It is clear that the Internet today as a medium remains highly vulnerable and easily compromised. Control of the cyber battle space will be a key freedom issue in the future.” Luckily, individuals outside of the “Women2Drive” movement have been speaking out on Al-Sharif’s behalf.
The National newspaper reports the words from an email Al-Sharif wrote earlier this month: “We are not here to break the law or…challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driving licenses and we will abide by the traffic laws…Enough with the talk…we are here to walk the talk and just do it. It’s about time!”
Without people to “walk the talk,” revolutions never happen. Al-Sharif’s actions are the kind of moves that make a difference for the future of freedom in oppressive environments. Those who support freedom would be wise to stand behind her.