CAIRO – International and local rights groups lashed out Tuesday at the arrest of a Saudi woman for defying the kingdom's female driving ban, while other Saudi women posted video clips online showing themselves behind the wheel.
Having so far escaped the unrest sweeping the region, Saudi rulers have cracked down harder than usual on 32-year-old Manal al-Sherif after seeing her case become a rallying call for youths anxious for change.
Al-Sherif was arrested Sunday after a video clip was posted online of her much-publicized drive last week — part of an effort to bring attention to the Facebook and Twitter campaigns she helped organize to encourage women across Saudi Arabia to participate in a collective protest against the driving ban.
The Facebook page, called "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself," was removed after more than 12,000 people indicated their support for its call for women drivers to take to the streets on June 17. The campaign's Twitter account also was deactivated.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women — both Saudi and foreign — from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
The issue is a highly emotional one in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even travel without their husbands' or fathers' permission.
The arrest prompted calls Tuesday for al-Sherif's release from international rights groups as well as protests from local rights activists.
Human Rights Watch warned the arrest will hurt the country's image.
"Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation — and, in fact, to mockery — around the world," said spokesman Christoph Wilcke. "The longer she stays in prison, the more the kingdom will have to answer for."
A local rights group, the Association of Saudi Women's Rights, visited al-Sherif in the detention center in the eastern city of Dammam where she was ordered held for five days, and urged the Saudi government to "take a decisive stance and give women the right to drive their cars."
"This is a natural right," the group said.
Over the past couple of days, at least two young Saudi women appeared in online video clips driving their cars in support of al-Sherif and defiance of the ban.
One young woman, identified only as Ruba and dressed in the all-encompassing black abaya all women must wear in public, was shown driving inside a compound in Riyadh. "Ruba drove in Riyadh. Congratulations Ruba," the voice of her female companion is heard saying.
Another, a teenage girl whose name was not given, was filmed by a male companion in the eastern city of Jiddah. "After this car, turn right and slow down," he was heard saying.
Al-Sherif's arrest has prompted hundreds of activists to set up Facebook groups and campaigns calling for her release and an end to the driving ban. One group, called, "We are all Manal al-Sherif," had some 14,000 participants.
About 800 Saudi people have signed a petition urging Saudi King Abdullah to release al-Sherif and to make a clear statement on women's right to drive.
"We are fed up," Waleed Aboul Khair, a lawyer and rights activists said. "Be frank," he said, addressing the country's rulers. "For the first time in the history of the kingdom, we have hundreds of people calling for the king to be frank."
"The society has moved. The society is not silent anymore," Aboul Khair said.
There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics that are enforced by police. King Abdullah has promised reforms in the past and has taken some tentative steps to ease restrictions on women. But the Saudi monarchy relies on Wahhabi clerics to give religious legitimacy to its rule and is deeply reluctant to defy their entrenched power.
Al-Sherif was initially detained for several hours on Saturday but was released after she signed a pledge agreeing not to drive. She was taken into custody again before dawn on Sunday and ordered held for five days while the case was investigated.
The ruling establishment moved to blame outside forces.
The Saudi daily Al-Watan, which is owned by a member of the ruling family, claimed that al-Sherif broke down in "an episode of crying" during interrogation and blamed the campaign on "women from outside the kingdom."
Her lawyer, Adnan al-Saleh, told The Associated Press that al-Sherif has not spoken to reporters. "I am saying she didn't say a single word and we will sue," he said.