Posted at 10:16 AM ET, 05/26/2011

Saudi Arabian women demanding right to drive are threatened with beatings, arrested


Manal al-Sharif in her driving video (Screengrab from youtube)
Manal al-Sharif, a woman arrested for organizing an online campaign to encourage Saudi women to drive on June 17, was supposed to be released by police today.

She won’t be.

Instead, Sharif will remain in custody for 10 more days, despite allegedly confessing and repenting for recording a video on YouTube that showed her driving.

Women are unofficially banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi blogger in Riyadh, Eman Al Nafjan, says the report is likely wrong. Sharif did not repent. “Manal’s support campaign and personal friends have denied all this and insist that Manal remains strong,” Nafjan wrote on her blog, Saudi Woman.

Meanwhile, Saudi men have launched a campaign to beat women who drive their cars on June 17.

The “The Iqal Campaign: June 17 for preventing women from driving” Facebook page has attracted more than 6,000 supporters and advocates that men hit women with the cord (Iqal) used to hold on a traditional headress. Some are even proposing they distribute boxes of Iqals for men to use that day.

Author Saudi Abdo Khal, writing in Okaz, said he did not know “whether to laugh or cry” over the proposed Iqal campaign, according to the Agence France-Presse.

But blogger Nafjan is less surprised by the response. “Regarding the whipping, that was completely expected, that happened even 20 years ago,” she said over the phone from Riyadh.

But Nafjan says some things are different now.

“It used to be that we would protest, and there was just one platform. The religious establishment and newspapers would only put out the official story, which would only be against the woman. The difference now is other platforms can be used,”she said.

Sharif’s campaign has used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread the word.

The Lede blog has reported that much of Sharif’s online campaign has been deleted, including the YouTube video of Sharif driving, a second clip in which she talked about the June 17 protest, and a Facebook page she set up called “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself.” Even the Twitter account Sharif used to spread news of the protest movement was copied and altered to make it seem as if she had canceled the campaign.

But that hasn’t ended the women’s protests. A new “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself” Facebook page is up. A page called “We are all Manal al-Sharif: a call for solidarity with Saudi women's rights,” has gathered 19,000 followers. Sharif’s driving video is on YouTube again, along with her original message about the protest.

“[The government] needs to understand that censorship does not work anymore,” says Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran, who writes on his blog Saudi Jeans from New York, where he is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. “By the time they removed one version of the video, dozen copies of the same video appeared.”

Watch Sharif’s driving video:

Sharif is not the first to demand that women be allowed to drive. In November 1990, more than 40 women drove their cars in the middle of Riyadh, which resulted in severe condemnation by the official religious establishment and a statement by the interior ministry that women were not allowed to drive.

“Legally speaking, there is no law banning women's driving,” says Omran. “The [Interior Ministry statement is] still a statement, never a law.”

In 2008, an activist recorded a similar video of herself behind the wheel on YouTube. But Nafjan says the government ignored her, in part because she was in the desert, not a city, and in part because she was an activist known for stirring up trouble.

“Manal is not an outsider, she is not known for doing stunts. She is a respected woman and role model. So the government is paying attention,” says Nafjan.

“Everybody wants to take a stand against it. There are thousands of women [in Saudi Arabia] who have international licenses, but few drive. We are afraid of the consequences. Manal was not. She is very brave.”

By  |  10:16 AM ET, 05/26/2011

 
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