Saturday, June 30, 2012

Q & A: The Saudi woman who dared to drive

The Los Angeles Times printed this interview with Manal al-Sharif by Emily Alpert. A link to it is here,  and text below.

Manal Sharif has been jailed, insulted and threatened. Her enemies faked her death, in a hamhanded bid to make an example of her. This year, she says, she was forced out of her job. Her life has been turned upside down by a crime that isn’t even a crime -- driving in her country, Saudi Arabia.

"There’s a famous saying in Arabic: When you oppress people, you make them heroes," she said. "I couldn’t understand why I was in jail. But that’s what created all this."

Driving isn’t actually illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, as Sharif is quick to point out. But because Muslim clerics have declared it forbidden, the traffic department refuses to grant women licenses. Sharif is among a group of women who have contested the ban.

Last year, after millions of people viewed an online video of her driving, Sharif was detained twice by police who insisted that she stop and demanded to know who was behind the campaign. She was released after an outcry but continued to face death threats and other attacks.

The furor also made her famous, feted as one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine and awarded a prize in Oslo for "creative dissent" -- a prize that ultimately cost Sharif her job when her employer told her she couldn’t leave the country to accept it, she said.

She did anyway, leaving her jobless after her trip to Europe this spring. But there is plenty for Sharif to do: The campaign that began as a plea to allow women to drive has expanded to contest all kinds of sexism in Saudi Arabia, where women must obtain permission from men to work, travel or study.

Activists are pushing for women to drive again Friday; an earlier driving protest was delayed after the death of the Saudi crown prince. The Times talked to Sharif about her quest in the year since she and her fellow activists urged Saudi women to get behind the wheel.
Why do you think driving has been so sensitive in Saudi Arabia, even more so than women voting?

There are people who will fight back because it's a financial loss for them. If you want to get a driver, you have to go to an office and give them money to bring you a driver from India or Indonesia. It's a business for them. We’ve been told they get 800 million riyals every year. So businessmen will do all kinds of campaigns to discredit us and say bad things about us. It's like a war.

Then there are the religious people. If they lose their grip on controlling women, they lose the grip on the whole society. We believe these smaller subjects are used to make people not discuss the more important thing, which is the male guardianship system for women. Being treated as a second-class citizen. All of this is the tip of the iceberg. There are children, 10 years old, and they drive because their moms or sisters cannot drive! A woman has to have her driver go with her to the office, go home, come pick her up, go home. This means more crowded streets and more pollution.
Do women defy the ban in their daily lives?

Sometimes it's really urgent and a woman has to drive, like the kid is dying. But usually the women do not know how. It's a very foreign act. My friend, her dad died in front of her waiting for the ambulance because she couldn’t drive. She said, "If I could drive I would have saved my father." Even if a woman wants to do it and knows how, your neighbors see you driving and call the religious police.

What has happened since the protests last year?

We’ve been talking to officials, writing articles, campaigning, trying to teach women to drive. I filed the first lawsuit against the traffic police for not issuing me a license. We believe the driving campaign rocked the boat. People talk about it now. The taboo has opened. There’s also been so much international attention.

I never understood it, why people are so interested in women driving. But when I met Kathryn Cameron Porter, president of the Leadership Council for Human Rights, in the United States, she said, "Manal, you find women who didn’t care because we take everything for granted, and when they see this, they say, 'What? This woman can’t drive because she’s a woman?'" It is the power of a single story.

Now anywhere you go, if they know one thing about Saudi Arabia, they know women cannot drive there. That means the government will be pressured to do something.

Do you believe this will change soon?

I believe if women want to change their reality, it will change. If women are silent, I don’t think anything will change. Rights are never given. Rights are taken.
We’re also hoping for some new and young blood (in the Saudi government). Sixty percent of us in this country are under 25, but the people in power are double our age. This creates a huge gap between us.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Saudi Women Drive on Anniversary of Campaign to End Ban

Donna Abu-Nasr reports via Bloomberg. Link to article is here and text pasted below.

Aziza al-Yousef said she took a 15- minute drive in the Saudi capital today to mark the first anniversary of a campaign to end the ban on women drivers in the kingdom.

Al-Yousef, a 52-year-old computer science university lecturer, said she encountered no problems driving in support of a call by the My Right to Dignity campaign. Saudi Arabia follows the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, and religious police formally known as the General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ensure strict gender segregation at public places such as restaurants and schools.
The driving ban highlights the disparity between the rights of men and women in the ultra-conservative kingdom, holder of the world’s second-largest oil reserves. Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

“What’s happening today is not a protest,” she said by phone from Riyadh. “We want to remember the day and the issue.”

The driving ban highlights the disparity between the rights of men and women in ultra-conservative kingdom, holder of the world’s second-largest oil reserves. Women have been granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, yet they were excluded from last year’s ballot and can’t travel or get an education or job without male approval.

“Society will get used to seeing women behind the wheel,” the My Right to Dignity campaign said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “We demand the protection of women drivers from any legal sanctions, and we demand that authorities protect women drivers in the street from any harassments they could face.”

Driving Necessity

Al-Yousef and about 100 other women across the kingdom haven’t stopped driving since the campaign was started, she said. On most occasions, it was out of necessity, she said, citing examples such as a woman who took her son who was suffering from an asthma attack to a hospital in the middle of the night.

“We didn’t drive to the mall or a party; we drove when there was a need and we couldn’t find a driver,” said al- Yousef, a member of My Right to Dignity campaign who said she drove about 30-40 times last year.

Women activists started several campaigns for broader rights last year, including the driving initiative. They were inspired by the Arab revolts that led to the fall of leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. One of their efforts, a campaign called Baladi, partially succeeded with King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to participate in the next elections.

Brief Detention

More than 50 women responded to the call to get behind the wheel in June 2011, taking spins in their cars as authorities largely turned a blind eye. Some continued to drive after the one-day initiative, and a couple were briefly detained. One woman was sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah, a decision that was later rescinded.

Mohammed al-Qahtani, who sat in the passenger seat last year as his wife drove, said the couple won’t repeat the experience because they were pulled over by a police car and he was forced to sign a pledge saying he won’t let his wife drive again.

“But I told my wife she should encourage her friends to do so,” said al-Qahtani, a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

The My Right to Dignity campaign called on women with international driving licenses to repeat the turnout today, and to record their trips as evidence. Those who don’t know how to drive were urged to send a picture of themselves behind the wheel of a car to the campaigners.

Male Supporters

The group also called on male supporters to take their female relatives on car journeys, sending a video clip or a picture of the event, and to teach them how to drive, “even your mother.”

“Marking the anniversary is going to be symbolic but the symbolism is important because it will be a reminder of the urgent matters that need attention, and a sign of continuity,” Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian, said in a phone interview on June 27.

Before last year’s initiative, the previous public defiance of the ban by a group of women was in November 1990, when U.S. troops were massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for the war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu Nasr in Beirut at at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

Thursday, June 28, 2012

iCNN Blogger: Why you should give up driving on Friday

CNN's blogger John D. Sutter writes about iCNN's project to show support for Saudi women driving on Friday, June 29th, 2012. A link to the blog entry here. and the text is below.

By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) - CNN iReport is asking people all over the world to give up driving for a day - and document it - in support of women in Saudi Arabia, who aren't allowed to drive because of religious rules in that conservative Middle Eastern kingdom.
Go to the iReport assignment page to learn how to participate.

Here's an example video that already came in from the Philippines.
(Sorry I can't figure out how to embed it here).

CNN plans to stitch some of the best videos together into a highlight reel that will be published online and may be shown on TV. The effort comes as a group of Saudi women, for the second year, are planning to protest Saudi's driving ban by getting behind the wheel and taking to the streets on Friday. The Women2Drive movement asks the women to upload their road trips to YouTube.

On June 17 of last year, dozens of women took to the streets in similar demonstrations.
Manal al-Sharif, whose driving video sparked the protest, was arrested and detained for her involvement.

Here's a profile I wrote after meeting al-Sharif this year. Perhaps the most powerful thing about her story (besides the fact that The Backstreet Boys had a hand in her transforming from Osama bin Laden supporter to human rights activist) is she believes that if Saudi women stand up and take control of their rights, the rest of the country will follow suit. "When women break that taboo and they're not afraid to drive that car by herself - that's it," she said. "Now she has the guts to speak up for herself and take action."

She's encouraged also by the movement's support outside of Saudi Arabia.
Check out a 2011 video of her driving below:

Out of fear for her safety, al-Sharif says she won't participate in the protests on Friday. But the protests are expected to continue in the spirit of that widely circulated video she uploaded last summer.

It's unclear how large the demonstrations will become, but you can follow the conversation about the driving women on CNN, iReport and on the Twitter hashtag #Women2Drive. The group also asks people who support the campaign to change their Twitter avatars to this photo. And Amnesty International also is collecting photos of people who support the driving campaign.

Saudi women have been pushing for the right to drive since the early 1990s, but with little luck. The Saudi kingdom, which enforces a conservative interpretation of Islamic law, also bans women from making formal decisions without the permission of a male guardian. Women don't have the right to vote or hold public office in Saudi Arabia, although that is expected to change in 2015. Earlier this week, the country's London embassy announced it would let women compete in the Olympics for the first time.

Organizers say the Women2Drive movement stands in for many women's rights issues in the country.

iReport: What if you weren't allowed to drive

Monday, June 25, 2012

June 29th driving protest still on

Contrary to some news reports, the planned June 29th driving protest to support Saudi women gaining the right to drive is still on the calendar, according to the facebook page, "My dignity is my right,".  A link to a tweet about it is here and the full text of the tweet is as follows:

The news of canceling the 1st anniversary 4 is not correct. None of members is behind it. We r still on June 29.

Thanks for blogger and tweeter Pedro Pizano for retweeting it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Saudi women renew calls to lift driving ban

Story below from Reuters - reporting that women driving activists will once more demonstrate by driving on June 29th. A link to the story is here and the text is pasted below.

Tue, Jun 19 2012
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - A group of Saudi activists are calling on women to get behind the wheel next week in defiance of a ban on female drivers, reviving a campaign that petered out last year.

"If women don't take action, the authorities will not lift the ban. It is up to women to decide," Manal Alsharif, one of the campaign organizers who was detained last year after posting a video of her driving in the streets of the city of Khobar, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic laws, women require a male guardian's permission to travel abroad, undergo some types of medical surgery and work in some jobs.
While there is no written legislation banning women from driving, Saudi law requires citizens to use locally issued licenses while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, making it effectively illegal for them to drive.

"The key to lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia is to start with the women themselves ... That is why we ask the authorities to protect those women who need to practice that right," they said in an emailed statement sent to Reuters.

The campaign leaders had initially planned for women with valid international licenses to drive on June 17 but had to postpone their plans to June 29 after conservative Crown Prince Nayef passed away on Saturday.

"In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the June 17 campaign, we renew our initiative by the women and men who support them in order to urge the authorities to look into this demand," they said in their original statement.

There is no indication of how many women will respond to this call and the Interior Ministry could not immediately comment.

"It is not likely that many women will take action on June 29. We are just stating a point that we are not giving up until the first (female) driver's license is issued," Alsharif said.

"We are hoping that with persistence and time ... people will see who we really are, Saudi women calling to have full citizenship and end decades of discrimination against us."
Around the same time last year, after pro-democracy protests swept through the region, dozens of Saudi women responded to the "Women 2 Drive" campaign, posting pictures and videos of their driving on twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Some of the women were detained briefly and two faced charges, including that of "challenging the monarch". One of them was let go after signing a pledge not to drive again, while the other was sentenced to 10 lashes.

Reuters could not confirm if the lashing sentence was inflicted, but a Saudi princess tweeted that it had been revoked.

This time the "Women 2 Drive" activists are calling for King Abdullah to support them by stopping any punishments being imposed by the authorities.

King Abdullah has a reputation as a cautious reformer and supporter of women's rights. Last year he announced plans to allow women to vote in municipal council elections and join the consultative Shoura council.

"In our campaign we do not seek to disturb the authorities or violate rules and regulations ... All we want is for the women who need to go about their daily business and do not have a man to help her to be able to help herself," they said in a petition addressed to King Abdullah.

"Our only hope is hanging on your kindness and support for our campaign by instructing those involved from the police, regional governors, and the religious police to support those of us who have valid licenses to use them," they said.

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Angus McDowall and Andrew Roche)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Women ready to be Saudi Arabia's new driving force

Story from the Canberra Times - by Ruth Pollard
Published: June 18, 2012 - 9:39AM

As Saudi Arabia mourned the death of another heir to the throne, a small group of women in the capital, Riyadh, were preparing to do what the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud vowed never to allow: drive.

The 78-year-old is the second crown prince to die in eight months, and all eyes are on the increasingly frail King Abdullah, 88, as he prepares to choose a successor.

A hardline conservative, Prince Nayef's appointment in November raised fears that if he did become leader he would abolish King Abdullah's cautious attempts at reform, such as promising that women would be allowed to run and vote in the 2015 council elections.
He was a vociferous supporter of sending troops to neighbouring Bahrain in March last year to support the Sunni monarchy's crackdown on peaceful protests by the island nation's Shiite majority.

Leaders of the Saudi reform movement have reportedly been arrested and jailed on his orders, and rather than enter into talks with opposition figures he once famously said: ''What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.''

The man experts say is most likely to replace Prince Nayef, Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, is seen as a moderate on women's rights but a hawk when it comes to regional security, Iran and the ongoing revolution in Bahrain.

As revolutions sweep through the Arab world, the Saudi kingdom - a close ally of the US - is facing unprecedented demands for reform.

The push by women to be allowed to drive - and to work, travel and open a bank account without the permission of a close male relative - is part of that process, but there is also unrest in the minority Shiite community and concern about rising rates of unemployment among those under 30.

One of the organisers of the women's driving protests, 33-year-old Manal al-Sharif, last week posted an open letter to King Abdullah, asking that he end the ban.

She urged women with international driving licences to take to the roads yesterday - the first anniversary of the re-energised campaign for reform.

But reform is almost guaranteed to take a back seat to concerns about succession in the royal family and increasing rivalry between the king's sons.

''The advanced age of Saudi Arabia's ruling elite virtually ensures that the kingdom will undergo a series of leadership changes in the coming years, throwing an already troubled region into further turmoil,'' Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, an activist, economics professor and frequent critic of Prince Nayef's Interior Ministry, told the Los Angeles Times in April that ''the problem is an ageing leadership and a second generation that's really corrupt. The near future of this country is gloomy.''

Prince Nayef's body was expected to arrive in Jeddah yesterday, to be buried after afternoon prayers in Mecca.

Saudi women delay driving protest after prince's death

The AFP is reporting the driving protest will be delayed until Friday. A link to the story is here and the text is below:

AFP) – 14 hours ago 
RIYADH — Saudi female activists who had been expected to brave a driving ban have postponed a planned day of action for Sunday following the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin
Abdul Aziz, a member of the group said.

"The campaign has been postponed until Friday," said Hind al-Zahid of the Women2Drive group that had urged women to get behind the wheel on Sunday for the first anniversary of a campaign that has seen several defiant women arrested.

A statement by the group on Friday had urged "women who hold driving licences (from abroad) to drive on the anniversary day, June 17, and document their acts."

It also urged men to get in the passenger seat to support their wives, mothers, or sisters who decided to flout the ban.

The statement urged women to flood the traffic department with driving licence applications and then to write to the department head to complain when they were not issued.
Some 800 people petitioned King Abdullah on Wednesday to allow women to drive in the only country in the world where they are banned from doing so.

The petition urged the monarch of the ultra-conservative kingdom to "encourage women who have obtained driving licences from neighbouring countries to begin driving whenever necessary."

They also called on the king to "establish driving schools for women and (begin) issuing licences."

Many women have driven since the campaign began last year and many have been arrested and forced to sign a pledge they will never drive again, activists say.

One group of defiant women drove cars last June in response to calls for nationwide action against the ban.

The campaign, which spread through Facebook and Twitter, was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested and punished after demonstrating in cars.

No law specifically forbids women in Saudi Arabia from driving, but the late interior minister, Prince Nayef, who died on Saturday, formally banned women from doing so after that protest.
Women with the financial means hire drivers, but others depend on the goodwill of male relatives to get around.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

June 17th Anniversary Drive-in Postponed

According to folks on Twitter  (#women2drive), and the Arabic facebook page, My Dignity is My Right about Saudi women's rights, the drive-in day scheduled for June 17, 2012 has been postponed due to the death today of Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz. The Crown Prince passed away suddenly in Geneva, where he was getting medical treatment. As the Arabs say, Allah Yarhamu. May God have mercy on him.

Saudi women risk arrest as they defy ban on driving

Sunday, June 17, 2012 is the one year anniversary of the 2011 campaign of Saudi women driving. A link to the Guardian story is here,  and the text is below:

Women in Saudi Arabia have been arrested and jailed for defying a ban on driving. Now they want men to join them in the passenger seat as they get behind the wheel
Manal al Sharif
Manal al Sharif: trying to keep the fight for women's rights alive.
In the past year, they have lost jobs, friends, social standing, reputations and they have been imprisoned, shunned and – in a few cases – even received death threats.

But women in Saudi Arabia were this weekend preparing once again to risk arrest and even flogging to drive cars in defiance of the country's ban.

It was on 17 June last year that about 100 women took part in the first demonstration organised by underground civil disobedience campaigns Women2Drive and I Will Drive My Own Car.
Many were arrested and jailed. One woman's sentence of 10 lashes was revoked only after the king intervened. It was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested after demonstrating in cars.

On Wednesday, two founders of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, 33, and Najla Hariri, 45, posted an open letter with 600 signatories to King Abdullah, appealing once more for an end to the ban on women driving. The letter said: "Our initiative is not aimed at violating laws."
On Sunday, women with international driving licences are being urged to flout the ban, but to make sure they do it respectfully, wearing the legally required full Islamic dress and displaying a picture of the king.

Campaigners want men to show their support by travelling in the passenger seat with their wives, mothers, and sisters. They are also asking women to flood the traffic department with driving licence applications.

"We only want to enjoy the right to drive like all women over the world," Hariri told the Observer. "It is really hard for women to take such a stand for the right of driving," she said. "But they will do so because we are really in need of this. So many women are struggling to manage their lives without the right to drive, it is not easy."

It was in May 2011 that Hariri, fed up with having to find a male relative to ferry her and her children around, began to drive herself. After hearing about Hariri driving on Facebook, al-Sharif, a divorced mother, followed suit a few days later, posting a video of herself on YouTube. Al-Sharif was imprisoned by the religious police for more than a week.
This month, Al-Sharif was unable to join four other Arab women in Washington to receive a Vital Voices Leadership Award from an organisation founded by Hillary Clinton.

"The main reason for not being at the awards was [concern] for my family's safety after receiving death threats from insane people," al-Sharif tweeted.

A year after she won recognition for defying the ban, al-Sharif has been forced to resign from her job at Saudi's government-owned Aramco oil company and has lost her housing. Family members have left the country out of fears for their safety.

In the past, King Abdullah, 87, has been quoted as saying "the day will come" when women are allowed to drive. Since last year's campaign, he has promised to allow women to vote and to stand in certain elections by 2015.

But many are sceptical that the king's announcement will herald a move towards equality in a society where discrimination remains entrenched – Saudi Arabia has come under attack for not allowing women athletes to participate in the London Olympics, although the governing Olympic body, the IOC, has refused calls to impose sanctions.

"A lot of westerners don't realise that the king and the government are a lot more progressive than the people," said Saudi writer Lubna Hussein.

"They have to walk a tightrope because the people may want to be modern but they don't want to be western. This year's driving campaign is much more subdued than last year's because of apathy."

She added: "It's no coincidence that during the Arab spring Saudi's neighbours were on fire, but it didn't reach the kingdom. People are comfortable and it makes them numb. With every change, there is often an economic imperative, then change happens fast.

"In Saudi, everything runs smoothly. The drive ban is indefensible, ridiculous, but there is enough of a backlash from the population against the protests to keep it [the ban] in place."
Saudi Arabia's powerful religious body, the Shura Council, has widely publicised an academic study that claims allowing women to drive would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse.

Meanwhile, a campaign called My Guardian Knows What is Best for Me – which opposes calls for a more liberal approach to women's rights, including women driving – has been started by a group of Saudi women.

That means the high personal price that is being paid by Hariri, al-Sharif and other women could be for nothing if the apathy Hussein refers to stops women driving in Saudi.

"I am very happy with the attention that we draw to our right to drive and I thank God that so many men are supporting us," said Hariri. "I can't say women are afraid, but of course they are worried – worried equally about the police and about their families.

"I hope that June 17 this year will bring us some good news regarding driving, because society's awareness is so much better now and there is wider understanding that there is an alternative here," she said.

"All of us have the dream that our country can and will become a supportive community for women, where men and women are treated equally."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Saudi king asked to lift driving ban

The following is an AFP story about a petition urging King Abdallah to lift the women's driving ban. It now as 600 signatures. A link to the story is here, . and the text is below. In another story, the BBC reports that Manal al-Sharif wrote a letter to the Saudi ruler, asking the same thing. Link to the BBC story is here.

RIYADH — Hundreds of people have petitioned Saudi King Abdullah to allow women to get behind the wheel on the first anniversary of the Women2Drive campaign launched in June 2011.

The signatories, who numbered nearly 600 on Wednesday, are asking the king of the only country in the world that forbids women to drive to "encourage women who have obtained driving licences from neighbouring countries to begin driving whenever necessary."
They also called on the monarch to "establish driving schools for women and (begin) issuing licences."

The petition thanked the king, a cautious reformer, for giving women the right to vote in municipal elections set to take place in 2015, saying "our initiative is not aimed at violating laws."

"We only want to enjoy the right to drive like all women over the world," said the petition signed by Manal al-Sherif, the icon of an Internet campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy the driving ban.

Najla Hariri, a Saudi mother who was freed after she was briefly arrested for driving in the western city of Jeddah in August, said "the petition will be handed to the king on our campaign's anniversary on Sunday."

Sheima Jastaniah, who was pardoned by the king after being sentenced to 10 lashes for breaking the driving ban last September, has also signed the petition.

Hundreds of women have driven since the campaign was launched and many of them have been arrested and forced to sign a pledge stating they will never drive again, according to activists.

A group of defiant women got behind the wheel of their cars last June in response to calls for nationwide action to break the ban.

The campaign, which spread through Facebook and Twitter, was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested and punished after demonstrating in cars.

There is no law that specifically forbids women to drive, but the minister of interior formally banned women from driving following that protest.

Women who have the financial means hire drivers while others must depend on the goodwill of male relatives to get around.

They also have to be veiled in public and may not travel unless accompanied by their husbands or a close male relative.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Where Driving Is a Crime and Speaking About It Leads to Death Threats

An important essay in the Huffington Post by Pedro Pizano, a human rights activist who serves as Strategy and Development Associate fro the Human Rights Foundation. Link to it here
He is writing about the fact that Manal al-Sharif's daring to tell her personal story is part of a larger revolution toward human rights in the Middle East. Text is below:

-Pedro Pizano, June 6, 2012

Looking over the long list of women's rights abuses still prevalent in the world today, the prohibition against women driving seems unimportant. The world's media channels would much rather give airtime to activists fighting for the eradication of female genital mutilation, or provide a platform for a heated debate dissecting the pros and cons of the burqa, or analyze the always-prevalent issue of payment equality between the sexes. Yet, this simple freedom to drive speaks volumes about the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. The argument over the right to perform such a commonplace task has blown open the discussion of human rights in the absolutist-male-dominated monarchy and cracked the airtight official policy on dissent itself. Although the window of freedom has only slid open a fraction of an inch, it has inspired women to start claiming their rights as free citizens of Saudi Arabia.

The inspiration toward nonviolent struggle often comes from surprising sources. Such was the case of the "illegal" rock concerts in Czechoslovakia that moved Václav Havel to write Charter 77 and, ultimately, to lead the struggle for a free Czech Republic. The inspiration could be as simple as a song line: "Back to the land of their fathers, land of their fathers," which helped inspire the Singing Revolution in Estonia that effectively ended communist rule. Every step towards freedom must be celebrated, recorded, and supported.

The Arab Spring has confirmed that it is a disservice to brand democracy as a "Western" ideology. Democracy, within the framework of individual rights, represents an inherent aspiration by all people to express their opinions and to hold accountable those that they choose to govern them. While representative democracy by itself does not ensure freedom by any means, as can be seen in many countries, a liberal democracy that grows out of the separation of Mosque and State and the division of government against itself has proven to be the best tool to protect the individual rights of citizens. Furthermore, the nations beholden to these ideas have higher economic development rates, lift more people out of poverty, and, more importantly, have never gone to war against each other, ever.

In contrast, the monarchy of Saudi Arabia has ruled with absolute power for eight decades, and fulfills none of the conditions described above. Although the nation is a signatory of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and also the Arab Charter of Human Rights, Saudi Arabia continues to deny basic freedoms to over half of its population. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Saudi Arabia denies these rights to its female citizens on a daily basis.

A powerful way to humanize the situation in Saudi Arabia is to learn about Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi woman campaigning for the right to drive in her own country. Ms. al-Sharif traveled to Norway to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum, a recent annual gathering organized to promote democracy, human rights, and justice. She shared her story of growing up female in Saudi Arabia. She told the Forum about the defiant YouTube video she posted last spring that showed her driving, and about her subsequent imprisonment and release from jail. Her experience led her to create a social media campaign called Women2Drive, aimed at eliminating the law against women driving.

On May 10th the Oslo Freedom Forum published Ms. al-Sharif's speech on YouTube. Since then, the video has been viewed more than 300,000 times, mostly from viewers inside the arab peninsula. Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum's YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying Ms. al-Sharif as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam. As a result, Ms. al-Sharif has been the target of thousands of attacks -- on YouTube, Twitter, blogs, online news sites, and even print media in Saudi Arabia.

Some of these attacks are extremely vicious and offensive, including insults and phrases such as: "slut," "dog," "whore," "prostitute," and "traitor." Some explicitly threaten Ms. al-Sharif with violence, sexual assault, and even death. Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring Ms. al-Sharif a "hypocrite" -- thereby questioning Ms. al-Sharif's status as a Muslim and placing her under further risk.
Why would a woman endure this kind of backlash to achieve such a minor freedom? Because in Saudi Arabia, it isn't a minor issue. There is no public transportation, cities are not pedestrian-friendly, and where sidewalks exist it isn't safe for a woman to walk the street. This is why women are bound to use taxis or private drivers -- draining their resources. On average, Saudi women pay upwards of one-third of their salaries to drivers. There are more than one million private drivers -- a black market with no structure for background checks or safety. In families that cannot afford a private driver, children as young as 10 serve as drivers. These factors lead to absurdly high fatalities on the roads.

Perhaps not every Saudi woman wants to drive, but by denying women the opportunity to participate, they deny all women their full rights as equal citizens under the law. Ironically, the same goes for wearing nail polish, or participating in the Olympics, both of which are off-limits to Saudi women. Not every woman wants to sport blue nail polish or throw a javelin, but no government should be able to deny her the opportunity to do so.

The Saudi government has made numerous promises to protect the rights of its female citizens. On paper, it upholds international human rights conventions, and its leaders have assured women that they will gain the right to vote and hold office "in the future." Yet, these empty promises mean nothing without tangible proof of the government's conviction in upholding them. Women are still effectively second-class citizens in their own society. They cannot study, marry, or travel without a male guardian's approval.

Granting women the right to drive won't change the way Saudi Arabia views its women. But it's an urgent necessity and an opportunity to create a dialogue of change in the country. As Manal al-Sharif herself stated when she chose the Arabic phrase that accompanies her social media campaign: "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself."

Pedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.