Saudi authorities have found a novel way of punishing women who defy the country’s driving ban: jailing the men who support them.
Around 50 women got behind the wheel on Oct. 26, in an act of civil disobedience. While some of the women were stopped and fined, none were arrested. Instead, police apprehended Tariq al-Mubarak, a male columnist who worked closely with organizers and who had penned an op-ed promoting women’s rights.
"This time they are not after women, they are after men who supported the women," women’s activist Manal al-Sharif told Foreign Policy. "They’re too afraid of people’s reaction."
Women have organized against the driving ban twice before, each time eliciting swift and heavy-handed responses from the government. In 1990, authorities suspended women from their jobs and restricted their ability to travel outside of the country. Following a 2011 protest, police inciting international outrage when they jailed Sharif for nine days, and sentenced another woman, Shaima Jastaina, to 10 lashes (Jastaina was later pardoned by the king).
The latest demonstration was the largest and most widely publicized, as women uploaded YouTube videos of themselves driving, and supporters broadcast the event on social media. "The whole country went into an emergency state on Saturday," Sharif said, "As if it was in a war – just because of women drivers."
Yet, the government’s official response was markedly tamer than in years past — in part, perhaps, because of the verbal lashing Saudi delegates received at a U.N. Human Rights Council session last week. Following the demonstration, women reported being followed by secret police, and were criticized for choosing October 26 (Hillary Clinton’s birthday) for their protest, but Mubarak remains the only person in custody.
Human Rights Watch characterized his detention as a retaliation against supporters of women’s rights.
But the government’s focus on Mubarak may bear more pernicious implications: By making one man responsible for the protest, authorities invalidate the women behind the campaign — implying that the movement will come to little without male support. It’s par for the course in a country where women are regarded as the legal minors of male guardians — unable to marry, go to college, or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons.
Sharif argues that, since the 2011 protest, public perceptions of women are rapidly changing.
"I see men commenting on the movement," she said. "They say, ‘Oh my god, we never thought a single woman would have the bravery of 1,000 men. You go online, they say, ‘if you want to get your rights, listen to women.’"
The women’s driving campaign enjoys broad support, bolstered by the ease and availability of social media. An online petition circulated before the October 26 protest collected nearly 17,000 signatures in one week. Just two years ago, a similar petition only garnered 3,000 signatures. "It showed that the society – and even men – was fed up," Sharif said. "This is huge, because women are realizing how powerful they are."
The next women’s driving day is scheduled for November 30.