Saudi Arabia

Saudi women ‘still enslaved’ despite end of driving ban, says activist

‘While people are celebrating ... the people who fought for lifting this ban are in jail,’ says activist Manal al-Sharif

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 11:37am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 9:13pm

Women are still “enslaved” through Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, an activist from the conservative Muslim kingdom said on Friday as the country prepared to lift a decades-old ban on women driving.

Manal al-Sharif hit world headlines in 2011 when she was jailed for videoing herself driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world at the time with a ban on women getting behind the wheel.

The ban was seen as an emblem of the Muslim kingdom’s repression of women, and the decision to lift it has been hailed by some as proof of a new progressive trend under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But for al-Sharif, the fight is far from over because women in Saudi Arabia still live under the supervision of a male guardian whose permission they need to marry or travel abroad.

“Imagine your son becomes your guardian,” she said. “No matter my capabilities as a woman, I am still enslaved to somebody else. Freedom for me is to live with dignity, and if my dignity and freedom is controlled by a man, I will never be free.”

Al-Sharif is launching a new campaign, #Miles4Freedom, calling on women around the world to log their names, existing or new car mileage and location on a map starting Sunday, when Saudi women can legally get behind the wheel.

When she gets 1 million logged miles, al-Sharif said she would send the open petition to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

“Instead of collecting signatures, it is a creative way to use the symbol of driving that women are still enslaved even if they are driving,” she said.

Rights activists have urged caution following the detention of nearly a dozen activists since May, most of them women who campaigned for greater freedoms. Some were released. The arrests revived criticism of Prince Mohammed’s much-hyped reforms.

“While people are celebrating on Sunday we shouldn’t forget the people who fought for lifting this ban are in jail,” said al-Sharif, whose campaign is also designed to put pressure on authorities to release those still detained.

After the arrests, al-Sharif said she scrapped her plan to return to Saudi Arabia. She had hoped to drive legally for the first time on Sunday on the same road where she was arrested.

She said she had also received death threats and a call telling her to keep quiet.

“I am so happy I want to be there. I know Saudi Arabia will never be the same again,” she said. “Women will have easy access to transportation and that means they will be more part of the workforce.”

Al-Sharif also hopes her campaign will raise global awareness about the guardianship system.

“Women driving is just the first step – we have a long way to go,” she said.