Manal al Sharif, a single mother from Saudi Arabia, is suing traffic police for rejecting her driving license application and ignoring her subsequent complaints to authorities. Founder of the Women2Drive campaign, Al Sharif’s struggle began when she was arrested in May 2011 for getting behind the wheel. Her battle for women’s rights to drive and travel freely in Saudi Arabia continues to accelerate.
There is no law which prevents women from driving in Saudi Arabia. Instead, religious edicts issued by clerics are interpreted in such a way that prevents women from driving and exerting their human rights; supposedly giving freedom of movement to women would encourage them to be sinful.
This explains why Manal al Sharif is heading the Women2Drive campaign, which strives to overturn this religious obstacle and give women the right to drive and travel freely in their country.
In May 2011, Al Sharif committed an ‘act of protest’ by getting into a car, driving to get groceries in al-Khobar, a city in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and returning home.
A couple of days later, Al Sharif drove past a police car: they pulled her over but they could not issue a punishment because she was not breaking the law.
Usually women who are caught driving are taken to police stations, accompanied by a male relative, and forced to sign a pledge declaring that they will never drive again.
While the traffic policemen at the scene discussed how to punish Al Sharif, a passer-by called the muttawa (Saudi Arabia’s religious police).
Al Sharif became a driving force of the campaign in the country for women’s rights.
She posted a video of herself on Youtube, driving through the streets of Saudi Arabia, which was pounced upon by the Western media, eager to contextualise this form of protest within the narrative of the Arab Spring.
Following this, Al Sharif was arrested and detained for nearly two weeks.
On June 17th 2011 Al Sharif organised a day of protest which called upon women with foreign driver’s licenses to drive in the Kingdom, as part of the Women2Drive campaign.
Although successful in causing a stir and attracting global media attention, the campaign triggered a clampdown by authorities on women drivers in Saudi Arabia.
A victim of this clampdown was thirty year old Shaima Jastina, who participated in the protest. She was found guilty of driving without permission and sentenced to be lashed 10 times for defying the kingdom’s prohibition on female drivers.
A few days later, King Abdullah spared Jastina of the punishment. The King has been quoted saying that “the day will come when women will be able to drive.”
King Abdullah came under pressure to cancel Jastina’s punishment, which was issued only two days after the King promised to protect women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and declared that women would be able to participate in municipal elections in 2015.
Concerns are rife that King Abdullah is becoming subservient to an increasingly powerful clergy and the highly conservative citizens in his kingdom.
Despite this, Manal al Sharif will not be deterred.
After her driving license application was thrown out by officials, she filed an objection against the ruling to maintain pressure on the authorities.
Al Sharif wants to encourage women to apply for licenses and file for lawsuits in an attempt to instigate change.
Although they haven’t quite turned the corner, the women of Saudi Arabia, headed by the inspirational and resilient Manal al Sharif will not stop until they do.