The “Arab Spring” may have finally caught up with Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities released a woman on Monday detained last month after she created a Facebook page protesting the Kingdom’s ban on women drivers, posted a video of herself driving a car, and encouraged other women to follow suit. The 32-year-old, Manal al-Sherif, has become the center of an Internet campaign in support of a June 17 protest that plans to challenge the driving restriction on women.
This is not the first time in Saudi Arabia that women have protested against the driving ban; Saudi women have been fighting for decades against the country’s religious police. In 1990, 47 women protested the ban by driving in a caravan throughout Riyadh for thirty minutes. As a result of their actions, the women lost their jobs, were “denounced by name as immortal women out to destroy Saudi society” by several mosques, and were banned from leaving the country for a year.
Manal al-Sherif in an image from her video explaining the importance of women being able to drive.
Much has happened over the last two decades, however, and women in the Middle East are increasingly speaking out against their limited rights. Just recently the world watched as women, long considered second-class citizens, protested in the streets alongside men in countries affected by the “Arab Spring.” These women clearly yearn for more freedom, just as their male counterparts do. And yet, the Saudi religious clerics hold their ground, arguing that the ban on women drivers protects against temptation as a free woman can leave her home and interact with men as she wishes. This thought process is backward and has a negative impact on society.
Al-Sherif’s protest may be the first signs of the “Arab Spring” infiltrating Saudi Arabia. In order to decrease the chances of an all-out protest taking hold inside another U.S. ally, Washington should pressure the Saudis to increase freedoms for women at this time. Indeed, such a move would not only help stabilize the country in a time of massive Middle East upheaval, but it would also help to increase the Saudis’ productivity over time, further stabilizing the country as Western nations try to break free from their dependence on oil.