Saudi Arabia urged to release woman arrested following driving campaign

The Saudi Arabian authorities must release a woman detained for her involvement in campaigning against the ban on women driving in the Kingdom, Amnesty International said today.Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, was arrested on 22 May, the day after she was stopped by police while driving in al-Khobar city in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. She had previously uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving a car on 19 May in support of an online campaign, “Woman 2 Drive”, which calls for Saudi Arabian women to be permitted to drive.“Women face severe discrimination on account of their gender in Saudi Arabia and the ban on driving is one aspect of this that perpetuates the restrictions on their freedom of movement,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme. “The government has done nothing to remove the ban despite calls from women activists and as such these activists are left with little option other than to resort to challenging these restrictions through peaceful means.”“In this respect, Manal al-Sharif is following in a long tradition of women activists around the world who have put themselves on the line to expose and challenge discriminatory laws and policies. As such, we consider her a prisoner of conscience and demand her immediate and unconditional release.”Saudi Arabian traffic police reportedly stopped Manal al-Sharif while she was driving her car at around 5pm on 21 May accompanied by her brother, Muhammad al-Sharif. They were detained by the religious and traffic police but released after about six hours and after they had apparently been made to sign pledges that she would not again drive in Saudi Arabia. Both were then re-arrested in the early hours of  22 May, taken to a police station and questioned before Manal al-Sharif was transferred a women’s prison in Dammam, where she continues to be held. Muhammad al-Sharif was released late on 22 May.A spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian prison system reportedly told Okaz newspaper on 23 May that Manal al-Sharif is accused of driving a car, inciting other women to drive, allowing a journalist to interview her while she was driving and planning to publish video footage showing her driving and other offences. He reportedly said that she would be detained for five days while investigations continue. The “Woman 2 Drive” online campaign has used Facebook and Twitter to urge Saudi Arabian women who hold international driving licenses to start driving on Saudi Arabian roads on 17 June. The campaign is encouraging women to drive as part of their normal daily activities rather than converge at one place. In 1990 a group of women challenged a customary ban on women driving by driving themselves in an orderly procession in Riyadh, the capital. In response, the Minister of Interior issued a formal directive banning women from driving that was then supported by a fatwa issued by the then-Grand Mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority. Women in Saudi Arabia face severe discrimination in both law and in practice. They are denied the right to vote, and must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work or higher education, or marry. Domestic violence against women is believed to be rife. “The Saudi Arabian authorities must address continuing discrimination against women and ensure that they are treated as full citizens enjoying equal rights with men and accorded the dignity and respect that they deserve,” said Malcolm Smart.