Saudi woman who fought for right to drive eyes next battle

BEIRUT, Sept 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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.

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Manal al-Sharif the face of the women's driving movement in Sadi Arabia
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Manal al-Sharif the face of the women's driving movement in Sadi Arabia
Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian activist who started the #women2drive movement and was arrested for driving while female, holds up a copy of the passport of Saudi activist Mariam al-Otaibi, as she speaks at the opening press conference of the 2017 Oslo Freedom Forum on May 22 2017 at the Intercontinental Hotel in central Oslo. Al-Otaibi, a survivor of domestic abuse, is currently in jail in Saudi Arabia for leaving her abusive husband and getting a job to support herself. During the opening press conference of the Oslo Freedom Forum, human rights activists from around the world spoke on the importance to defend democracy in today's increasingly authoritarian world. The use of fake news and the gradual disassembly and defamation of working democratic institutions, including the press, were identified as key elements of a disintegrating democratic state. (Photo by Julia Reinhart/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian activist who started the #women2drive movement and was arrested for driving while female, speaks at the opening press conference of the 2017 Oslo Freedom Forum on May 22 2017 at the Intercontinental Hotel in central Oslo.. During the opening press conference of the Oslo Freedom Forum, human rights activists from around the world spoke on the importance to defend democracy in today's increasingly authoritarian world. The use of fake news and the gradual disassembly and defamation of working democratic institutions, including the press, were identified as key elements of a disintegrating democratic state. (Photo by Julia Reinhart/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Saudi activist Manal Al-Sharif gestures during the 20th Forum 2000 Conference on October 17, 2016, in Prague. The theme of this year's Forum 2000 conference is 'Courage to Take Responsibility''. / AFP / Michal Cizek (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Muslimah Habel and honoree Manal al-Sharif attend the TIME 100 Gala, TIME'S 100 Most Influential People In The World, cocktail party at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 24, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME'S 100 Most Influential People In The World, cocktail party at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 24, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Manal al-Sharif and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend the TIME 100 Gala celebrating TIME'S 100 Most Infuential People In The World at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 24, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for TIME)
Manal Al-Sharif, editor of the women's section of the Al-Watan newspaper, in her office at the newspaper's offices in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 29th November 2005. Her office is in a segregated, women-only part of the building. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)
Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif answers a question during the opening plenary session titled "The Age of Participation" on the first day of the 2014 Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, March 21, 2014. Also pictured from left to right former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Arizona Senator John McCain, 2011 Google Science Fair winner Shree Bose (nd R) and the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. REUTERS/Samantha Sais (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION)
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif arrives to be honored at the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2012. The Time 100 is an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the last year complied by Time Magazine. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)
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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 license.

 

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 criticized for its continued constraints.

The male guardianship system requires women to get permission from a male relative before traveling 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 practice 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. (Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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