Saudi Arabia’s #women2drive Movement Reacts to Arrest
Update: On May 31, 2011 Manal al Sharif was released after pledging to not drive a car, leave the Women2Drive movement and avoid the mass drive protest planned for June 17. But her supporters remain actively recording video of them selves driving and uploading it to their YouTube channel. Will Manal's arrest and public pledge to drop her activism hold the Women2Drive movement back?
Check the bottom of this post for earlier updates.
If you’re looking for signs of the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia, look no further than the #SaudiWomensRevolution. Over the past 3 months, there’s been a steady flow of online updates from the women-led campaign for driving rights in the gulf country (where women also can’t vote). The stream of updates on Facebook and Twitter have, though, picked up dramatically since Sunday night when a leader of the fledgling movement was arrested. For driving.
The campaign for female driving rights is not entirely new. Back in 1990, around 50 women were arrested for participating in a demonstration. And 2008 saw the first example of perhaps a new generation of Saudi women using online video and social networks to gain momentum for their cause. That spring, a woman named Wajeha Al-Huwaider recorded herself illegally driving in order to spread awareness about the ban, and she was successful in that the video did attract international attention.
But international attention isn’t enough for domestic change. 3 years later, activists have decided to build their growing series of YouTube videos into a bigger event: a “mass drive.” According to the plan, on June 17 women of all ages and background will take to their cars.
It was one of the founders of the June 17 mass drive, Manal al-Sherif, that was arrested on Sunday. Al-Sherif went out for a drive in order to drum up support and encourage younger girls to get involved in the June 17 event. According to the Facebook page made to support her:
Manal in her attempt to challenge women driving ban in Saudi Arabia by the most pacifist way, through an event on Facebook, has been arrested twice late at night Sunday, May 22, by the hands of the religious police and without any apparent legal reasons.
A page and a group (mainly Arabic) has been set up to help organize support:
If she’s still in jail (reports vary), it’s unlikely that she will be detained for long.The arrest was most likely a scare tactic to discourage women from coming out on the June 17 mass drive - pretty well encapsulating this take is a comment left on the Facebook page for Manal this morning:
If Manal is in jail (in trouble) then why would the rest of the women would want to copy her? or drive which will eventually lead them to get in jail! Every woman here should think about there families before thinking to drive, i am not saying one should not drive but she should prepare oneself for the after consequences! This is a damn country and the SHIT government is never gonna allow women to drive! Hope Manal gets out of jail as soon as possible our duas [sic] are with u : ).
But will it work? The other side of the coin is that the arrest may serve to drum up support for the cause and get news about the June 17 event out to more people. There are relatively few fans and members in any of the movement's Facebook hubs, but they seem to be growing fast, with one growing from around 1700 members to over 3000 overnight.
The decision to arrest al-Sherif underscores why the female driving movement in Saudi Arabia is important: it’s about more than just driving. As Clay Shirky often points out, what scares governments is an organized citizenry rather than what it is organized for. The female driving campaign is more than a womens’ movement and more than a call for the right to drive. It’s a barometer for a potentially strenghthening Saudi Arabian civil society. And that’s why the response to this arrest is also so important - will it galvanize people (like those one Facebook and Twitter whose interests have been piqued by al-Sherif's arrest) to come out in greater numbers on June 17th, or will Saudi Arabian women be pushed away from activism out of fear?
Visit the Saudi Women Revolution page
Join the conversation on Twitter
Visit the Women#2Drive Community page
Update (5/25): Manal al-Sharif remains in jail
Update (5/26): According to Saudiwoman's Weblog, "The latest news is that Sabq, a local news organization claims that it has insider information that Manal’s prison sentence has been extended ten day, starting from Thursday 26th, May."