Saudi Activist Manal Al-Sharif Freed from Prison

Manal Al-Sharif, the 32-year-old Saudi feminist activist whose video of herself driving a car has sparked an internet-based campaign to in support of Saudi women’s rights, was released on Monday after ten days in Saudi Arabia’s Damman prison. Al-Sharif is a single mother with a five-year-old son, who was hospitalized during her imprisonment. According to some reports, Saudi authorities had threatened to remove custody of her son.

Al-Sharif issued a brief statement thanking Saudi officials for her release and rebuffing attacks on her character and her devotion to Islam: “At the end of the day, I am everyone’s daughter and sister,” said Manal. (A full translation of her statement is available here.) Reports are mixed on whether or not Al-Sharif renounced the movement as a condition of her release, but supporters of the Women2Drive movement continue to insist that pressure will continue.

Meanwhile, SaudiWomen2Drive has established its own YouTube channel with several videos of Saudi women driving. The Twittersphere dances with reports: Women spotted driving in Riyadh! Women spotted driving in Jeddah!

The original video of Manal and her camerawoman Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider are now available with English subtitles. In it, the women dialogue about the practical impossibilities and blows to dignity the driving ban means for the daily lives of women in Saudi Arabia. Watching it, I saw many similarities to feminist organizing I have seen in Mormon communities. The video is a model of how feminists working within conservative religious cultures begin to create space for ourselves. 

Even if Al-Sharif elects to take a low profile role in the Women2Drive movement, other women are taking the keys and getting into the driver’s seat. A Saudi woman named Umm Ibrahim Almaqati has now created three YouTube videos of herself driving in Riyadh. “We are all Umm Ibrahim!” her Twitter supporters exclaim. “This is just beginning!”

Behind the wheel she sits, veiled in her niqab. Her sister or brother or husband sits in the passenger seat, holding the camera, urging her on. The sight of these veiled women committing radical acts reminds me of the Algerian revolution, when, as Frantz Fanon and others observed, Algerian women used the veil to disguise their identities in their fight against French colonial occupiers. Some women even smuggled bombs underneath their veils. Today, Saudi women use the anonymizing quality of the veil to push back against the extreme anti-feminism that experts say has more to do with Saudi politics than it does Islamic scripture or history.

Across Saudi Arabia, women are taking the keys and the cameras and making tracks on the desert. Veiled in black, they are everyone’s daughter and sister. Made powerful by YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, they are everywhere.

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