A Saudi woman detained for defying the ultraconservative kingdom's ban on female drivers will be held in detention for at least 10 more days, a lawyer and rights activist said Thursday.
CAIRO – Manal al-Sherif, a 32-year-old IT expert, was arrested at dawn on Sunday and accused of “violating public order.”
She started a Facebook campaign urging Saudi women to get behind the wheel to protest the longtime driving ban and did so herself, posting the video on the Internet and launched an online campaign urging Saudi women to stage a mass driving protest on June. 17.
Having so far escaped the large-scale unrest sweeping the Arab world, Saudi rulers have cracked down harder than usual on al-Sherif, after seeing her case become a rallying call for youths anxious for change.
On Thursday, the prosecutor general of the Eastern Province extended her detention for another 10 days while an investigation is in progress, said lawyer Waleed Aboul Khair.
“This is a message that any woman who dares to drive her car will face the same destiny,” Aboul Khair said.
Her arrest has drawn criticism from international and local rights groups and has spurred more women to drive and post videos of themselves behind the wheel.
One of the most recent was a video clip by a young woman from Qatif in the Eastern region, who appeared driving a car while her father was filming her.
“I saw video clips from different places around the kingdom,” she said. “This is not the final goal. It is a step in the road. Of course, I am afraid, but I depend on God,” the young woman, fully covered in black, said during the clip.
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.
There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics that are enforced by police.
Saudi clerics, from the hard-line Wahhabi school of Islam that is the official doctrine of the kingdom, insist the ban protects against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers.
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 reluctant to defy their entrenched power.
A Saudi cleric, Sheik Ghazi al-Shemri, who chairs Social Solidarity government office in the Eastern Region, was quoted by al-Youm daily as saying that al-Sherif “should be flogged in the women’s marketplace as a model and a lesson.” Flogging is part of Islamic Sharia law, a way to punish women who violate public order.
Al-Sherif’s 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.
Then hundreds of activists to set up Facebook groups and campaigns calling for her release and an end to the driving ban. One group had some 14,000 participants.