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Manal al-Sharif, Saudi woman who fought for right to drive, eyes next battle

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-09-2017 Heba Kanso

Beirut: A Saudi Arabian woman jailed for daring to get behind the wheel was overjoyed on Wednesday with the “historic” news that women will be free to drive cars in her conservative homeland, but said a male guardianship system is still repressing women.

Manal al-Sharif became the face of the women’s driving movement after making headlines in 2011 when she posted a video of herself on Youtube driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country at the time that banned women from driving.

Two days later she was arrested and jailed for about a week.

For more than 25 years, women activists have campaigned to be allowed to drive, defiantly taking to the road, petitioning the king and posting videos of themselves at the wheel on social media. The protests brought arrests and harassment.

Now living in Australia, al-Sharif was delighted when Saudi King Salman on Tuesday said women must be allowed to drive, ending what was seen as a long-standing stain on Saudi Arabia’s global image, with the order to be implemented by June 2018.

But the campaigner said the battle is not over, with a major setback for women in Saudi Arabia that needs to “disappear”.

“Abolishing the male guardianship-period. You can not empower women to become anything in your country if she still needs a man’s permission,” said al-Sharif, 38, a divorced mother with a job, her own car and a United Arab Emirates driving licence.

Small steps

Despite some steps forward for women in recent years, such as wider participation in the workforce, voting and standing in municipal elections, the gender-segregated nation has been widely criticised for its continued constraints.

The male guardianship system requires women to get permission from a male relative before travelling overseas, getting married, or seeking medical care, and gives Saudi women a legal status that resembles that of a minor.

Women in the kingdom are also bound by law to wear long robes and a headscarf. “My government until today did not name an age where I am an adult. That is the first thing they should do,” al-Sharif told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Australia.

Although al-Sharif said more needs to be done to empower women in the kingdom and give females their “basic human rights”, she did not belittle the driving breakthrough.

“This is huge. There is nothing really more difficult than this fight for women to drive because it touches every single woman.” said al-Sharif. “This is the one that emancipates them.”

Reactions on social media have been mixed and al-Sharif, who is no stranger to threats and online harassment, believes this newfound freedom for women will not come easily.

“That is the real challenge to society, how they accept having women as full citizens and practise and exercise their right,” she said.

The activist said she was looking forward to getting back into the same car she drove when she was arrested in Saudi Arabia and navigating the kingdom’s streets - this time legally. Thomson Reuters Foundation

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