Manal al-Sharif is a hero to many women in Saudi Arabia, but she is also the scourge of many men there. She is pushing for the unthinkable—no, not granting women the vote. That would be ridiculous. She wants Saudi women to be allowed to drive cars. America’s ultra-conservative ally refuses to concede, believing that this would lead to a slippery slope. Allowing women to drive could well lead to them leaving the safety of the home without the express written permission of their closest male relative (a husband, a father, a brother, or a son), and that would inevitably bring about unparalleled lewdness and licentiousness in the streets.
But Al-Sharif fights on. She has even been videoed driving (not for the faint-hearted), and like other social revolutionaries throughout the Arab world, she has taken to Facebook and Twitter to further her subversive agenda. She is even organizing a nationwide day of protest in June, and is hoping that women of all social classes will join her behind the steering wheels of Hyundais to Mercedes, across the roads and highways of the kingdom.
On Sunday, al-Sharif was arrested, in an effort to nip the phenomenon in the bud. This, however, was not enough for many men in Saudi Arabia. Some of them have taken to Facebook as well, with a counter-campaign to prevent women from sitting in the driver’s seat.
Called the Iqal Campaign, it calls on men to take drastic measures to prevent women from driving. The iqal is the thick cord used to hold the traditional keffiyeh, or headdress, in place. The Iqal Campaign’s Facebook page calls on men to whip women drivers into submission with these cords. According to The Atlantic, the page received 6,500 “Likes” before it was removed for violating Facebook’s rules against inciting violence (a cached version is available here).
A spokesman for Facebook stated, “We’re sensitive to content that includes pornography, harassment of private individuals, direct statements of hate against protected groups of people, and actionable threats of violence.”
Facebook did not remove the page “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself” page, which received 12,000 “Likes.” That was done by the women themselves, most likely under pressure from their families and the authorities. That page has since been reinstated.
Speaking in broader terms at the eG8 Internet Forum in Paris of the role that Facebook is playing in the Arab Spring uprisings, Mark Zuckerberg played down the role of Facebook, saying, “It’s not a Facebook thing, it’s an Internet thing. I think Facebook was neither necessary nor sufficient for any of those things to happen. If it weren’t Facebook, it would be something else.”
While Facebook has been banned in Saudi Arabia in the past, Alexa lists Facebook as the third most popular site in the kingdom, after the localized version of Google and Youtube. The country itself is relatively computer literate, and al-Sharif herself was employed as a computer security analyst and consultant for Aramco, the state-owned national oil company. Her only problem was that she could not drive to work.
In fact, there is no official law on the books in Saudi Arabia denying women the right to drive. It is a cultural norm imposed by the powerful religious police force, the Mutawa’in and the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They have been coming under increasing pressure over the past few years from the public and even the Interior Ministry, which has denied them the right to detain, interrogate, or punish perceived offenders of their strict interpretation of Sharia law.