Women’s rights pioneer Manal Al Sharif was released from prison Monday in Saudi Arabia on a pledge to dissociate from the women’s rights to drive campaign that she had orchestrated.
Sharif was detained after defying earlier this month the de facto ban against women driving, raising awareness for the June 17 campaign to get women in Saudi Arabia behind the wheel.
Hala Al-Dosari, a 39-year-old Ph.D. candidate, after publishing an article at Al-Hayat on the failed approach of the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia, was asked to support the Women2Drive campaign, specifically to pen an open letter to introduce the group’s initiative to take the right to drive.
“I offered my support and submitted the letter; I communicated once with Manal online [during the group’s introductions] and was really impressed with her candidness and strong will,” Al-Dosari wrote in an email interview.
Yet Sharif wrote in a statement published after her release, according to translator Zaki Safar, “Concerning the topic of women’s driving, I will leave it up to our Leader in whose discretion I entirely trust to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the People, while also being pleasing to Allah, and in line with Divine Law.”
But the government has yet to make good on its 2009 promise to the United Nations Human Rights Council to cease obstructing the rights of 9 million women in Saudi Arabia, reports Human Rights Watch. Years later, the male guardianship — a system that treats women like legal minors — remains.
And despite covert pressure from the Obama administration to give women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, according to leaked U.S. embassy cables, the Guardian reported Sharif’s arrest and subsequent resignation from the Women2Drive campaign indicates that Saudi authority is unlikely to hand women the metaphorical keys.
“I’m sure that the call for women rights and for driving is still important to Manal but she has done her duty for now,” Al-Dosari, who is currently studying in Virginia and is the author of the widely read Saudi Women Rights blog, wrote. “I expect other women to follow.”
But will Sharif’s arrest and detachment from the women’s driving movement debilitate its momentum?
“I expect many women to hesitate because of the harsh and violent response of the police and religious committee against them,” wrote Al-Dosari.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider blazed the trail for women’s driving rights when she famously drove on International Women’s Day in 2008. Al-Huwaider herself faced consequences from Saudi authorities last week because she accompanied and filmed Sharif driving.
“I was called [Wednesday] by the Saudi Aramco Employee Affairs (my company) and told that Dhahran police want me for questioning,” Al-Huwaider wrote in an interview expressing her sorrow over Sharif’s arrest. Explaining that she herself felt like she had aged because of it, she wrote, “I was in the beauty salon when they called. I was coloring my gray hair.”
“[The] Aramco representative kept calling me,” she said. An inveterate advocate, Al-Huwaider was not easily intimidated, “I told him at the end tell [the police], I’m at the beauty salon and if they want me to come with my hair stained with color, I have no problem with that. Otherwise, they have to wait until I finish.”
After she finished, Al-Huwaider had to wait for her brother to take her to the authorities, because, as a woman, she is prohibited from driving.
“The questioning took 3 hours. It was all about my support for Manal’s movement for allowing women to drive cars. Then, they made me sign a pledge not to do that again and my bother sponsored me as he my male guardian. But I wrote at the end I will continue demanding for that right through different ways until the Saudi law grants it for us,” wrote Al-Huwaider.
One such method involves petitioning U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to support openly, overtly the Saudi women’s right to drive.
The approach to women’s rights through global support is sensible considering the amount of censorship advocates face in Saudi Arabia.
“Censorship is targeting online campaigns and activists,” wrote Al-Dosari in response to the obstruction of online pages and videos by the Saudi government after Sharif’s arrest. “Such meddling will not be effective, proxies are used all the time and ideas cannot be killed by cracking down on activists.”
Al-Dosari voices women’s concerns in her writings and through social activism as a civil society member; her main advocacy issues are women’s rights and violence against women. Though Al-Dosari has written for the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat for the past four years, she recently stopped due to “censorship concerns.”
She underscored the fact that the campaign for women’s driving rights is not a protest against the government, but wrote regardless, “I do expect a similar scenario to the 11th of March call for demonstration,” a quelled protest attempt in the Gulf State, “police cars and check points will be all over the cities and mass arrest can take place.”
Al-Huwaider was similarly cautious: “Our struggle is going to take many years to come.”