Saudi police arrest two in clampdown on protest against ban on women drivers

Manal al Sharif, an organiser of the planned protest on June 17 against the driving ban, and her brother were both arrested yesterday, according to a human rights advocate in Jeddah.

A shot from the video on Youtube showing Manal al Sharif driving in Saudi Arabia.
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RIYADH // Saudi police moved to head off what appeared to be shaping up as a nationwide protest against the country's ban on female drivers, arresting one of the event's organisers yesterday and shutting down a Facebook page dedicated to the planned protest.

Manal al Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, was taken from her home in Al Khobar around 5.30am local time, according to Waleed Abu al Khair, a lawyer and human rights activist in Jeddah. Her brother was also arrested, Mr Khair said.

It was the second time Ms Sharif had been detained. On Saturday, she was arrested by Saudi religious police and held for several hours after they saw her driving in Al Khobar. Earlier, she had posted a YouTube video of herself driving and talking about the need of Saudi women to drive.

Ms Sharif is among a group of Saudi women promoting a protest on June 17 against the driving ban. Using the internet sites Facebook and YouTube, they were urging women who, like Ms Sharif, have international driver's licences to get behind the wheel that day for whatever errand they had to do.

"On June 17th, 2011, we women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves," Ms Sharif wrote in a May 6 e-mail about the Women2Drive campaign. "We are not here to break the law or … challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driving licences and we will abide by the traffic laws … Enough with the talk … we are here to walk the talk and just do it. It's about time!"

A Ministry of Interior spokesman, General Mansour al Turki, said he was not able to comment on Ms Sharif's detention as it was a "local matter" involving the traffic police department.

Ms Sharif told CNN that during her first detention on Saturday she was pressured to sign a paper promising that she would not drive in the kingdom. Mr Khair said she was also told to stop talking to the media.

Her arrest has become a major topic of interest on Twitter and other websites.

By last night, her backers were using mobile phones to spread a new logo showing her picture and the slogan: "We are all Manal Al Sharif."

Her arrest also generated more international awareness of the kingdom's ban on female driving - the only one of its kind in the world. Although there is no law against females driving, a significant segment of Saudi society, backed by religious conservatives and including both men and women, oppose it as a step towards a western lifestyle.

The government appears divided, although Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal has said in interviews that he believes women should be allowed to drive and King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is widely believed to favour lifting the ban.

Planners of the June 17 protest were taking care to avoid violating the kingdom's prohibition of public demonstrations by urging women to go about their errands individually and not converge on one place. "It means these girls learnt a lesson. They're smart," said Fawziah Al Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University and one of the women who participated in a 1990 protest against the driving ban.

Women who drove in that protest were severely punished. Some lost their jobs, were forbidden to travel abroad, or were maligned in mosque sermons. In a major shift from the protest 21 years ago, young men have been openly supporting the planned June 17 event. A Facebook page entitled "Protecting Saudi females on 17th June" has encouraged men to "protect" their female relatives if they decide to drive that day.

Ms Sharif's pro-driving campaign is an example of an increasingly vocal activism among Saudi women in recent months that some say is inspired by pro-democracy movements taking place around the Arab world.

Those events "encouraged them to open their eyes", said Eman Al Nafjan, a prominent Saudi blogger.

Other instances of recent female activism include the "Baladi" campaign, which has called for women to be allowed to vote in upcoming municipal elections, and a Facebook page titled "Saudi Women's Revolution".

It is not only women seeking progressive change who are speaking up. Adult literacy teachers, upset about not getting permanent positions, protested recently outside the Civil Services Ministry.

A group of women who have male relatives detained on suspicion of extremist activities staged several protests outside the interior ministry in recent months.