Saudi Woman Defies Driving Ban, Gets Arrested

Originally published on May 24, 2011 8:28 am
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In Saudi Arabia, women are traditionally barred from driving, but some women are trying to change that. Among them, Manal al-Sharif. She's 32, and she was arrested this past weekend after posting videos of herself on YouTube driving a car. Even so, she's urging other Saudi women to take to the wheel. There's a national protest scheduled for June 17.

Well, to find out more, we've called Khaled Al-Maeena. He's editor of the Arab News in Jeddah.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. KHALED AL-MAEENA (Editor, Arab News): Thank you.

KELLY: So tell me, what is her current status?

Mr. AL-MAEENA: Well, she is now in detention since the weekend. She was taken in for driving. But another day later they took her and her lawyer had said that there was some charges which included violating public law. We don't know what it is. There's no law against driving per se in Saudi Arabia.

KELLY: And I understand that Manal al-Sharif has actually made that a key part of her campaign. She talked about it. We have a clip of her speaking. This is her speaking on CNN.

Ms. MANAL AL-SHARIF: We are not against the law. We're not protesting. We're not doing anything that's breaking the law. We made this clear. And we are all Saudis who started this thing and we love our country.

KELLY: Now, clearly Saudi authorities would not agree with that if they've arrested her twice in the past week.

Mr. AL-MAEENA: Yes. I do agree with what she said. There is no law and people are now looking - it is an economic dictate(ph), if I may say, so for women to drive. Having a driver and paying him 300 to 400 dollars a month coming in from an Asian country is a burden on many Saudi families. And people are openly saying so. And there are women who are divorced. Manal is a single (unintelligible) and she has kids. And there are so many other ladies who are widowed. So these people need to have access to be mobile.

KELLY: Well, you said she is finding some support among Saudi women. How much of a difference is that likely to make? Do you see this campaign actually gaining any traction?

Mr. AL-MAEENA: Well, I think that there has been a negative effect with her arrest. And there is a counter campaign against it by certain elements in society. There are hardline conservative elements who are against participation and women.

Now, this goes against the grain of what the government is saying. The government has already said - and the king and the crown prince are on record as saying that they're all for women's emancipation.

The king's daughter heads a major health organization. And these are not, by the way, cosmetic organizations. These are real organizations like anywhere in the United States or Europe.

KELLY: Well, do you think - given all of the changes that we're seeing in the Arab world this spring, does this strike you as a moment where women might actually be able to affect some change? I mean, as you know, when this has been tried before, the Saudi government has tamped down pretty hard on efforts to lift the ban on women driving.

Mr. AL-MAEENA: Yes, but this is 2011. The Saudi Arabia of 2000 is not the Saudi Arabia of today. I think women want to be in charge of themselves. They do not like to be sort of manhandled, if I may use that expression. So I really believe that those who want to drive should be allowed. And those who don't want to drive, it's up to them.

KELLY: What comes next for Manal al-Sharif? Is she planning, do you know, to take part in this protest scheduled for next month?

Mr. AL-MAEENA: I don't know what will happen to the next month. But today also I read that two other women went and drove. So I'm sure that more and more women will take up to the wheel, as they say, and do something. And I hope that she will not be deterred by this detention, because she has not done anything wrong.

KELLY: All right. Well, thanks very much.

Mr. AL-MAEENA: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Khaled al-Maeena. He's editor of the Arab News in Jeddah, and he's been bringing us up to speed on the case of Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested this past weekend for driving in Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.