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Freed Saudi woman driver vows to continue campaign

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    21 July 2011 Last updated at 18:42 GMT Freed Saudi woman driver vows to continue campaign By Michael Buchanan BBC News  Activist Manal al-Sharif is a
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 21, 2011
      21 July 2011 Last updated at 18:42 GMT

      Freed Saudi woman driver vows to continue campaign

      By Michael Buchanan BBC News

       

      Activist Manal al-Sharif is a computer security expert and mother of one

      A Saudi woman whose imprisonment for driving drew global attention to the issue says she is more determined than ever to continue her campaign.

      Manal al-Sharif, 32, was held for nine days in May after driving in the eastern city of Khobar.

      "We won't stop until the first Saudi license is issued to a woman," she told the BBC in her first interview since.

      Earlier this week, prosecutors in the city of Jeddah announced they were going to prosecute a woman for driving.

      The campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia has gained momentum in recent weeks.

      On 17 June, dozens of women took to their cars across the country in open defiance of the ban on driving.

      The campaign gained the support of prominent women around the world, including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

      'Positive change'

      Manal al-Sharif's imprisonment led to Amnesty International calling for her release.

      "Women tell me they are different since 21 May - the day I was arrested - it's a positive change, they believe now”
      Manal al-Sharif Women's rights activist

      She said she was surprised by the level of coverage and support she received. "I didn't know the whole world was moved."

      More importantly, she said, had been the reaction from women in Saudi Arabia itself.

      "Women tell me they are different since 21 May - the day I was arrested. It's a positive change, they believe now. [Driving] is one of our smallest rights. If we fight, we can build women who trust themselves, have belief to get the bigger rights we are fighting for."

      Some Saudi women say the authorities have slightly relaxed their attitudes to female drivers, merely cautioning women rather than making them sign a pledge not to do it again.

      Jeddah case

      Earlier this week, however, prosecutors in Jeddah - on the Red Sea coast - announced they intended to pursue a case against a 35-year-old woman driver.

      The woman, who has not been named, claims she had no alternative to driving as she needed to get to hospital and there was no man to take her there.

      Zafi Safar from the Women2Drive campaign has spoken to her and said she had told the judge who set her trial date for September that he did not understand the background to her case.

      Such setbacks appear not to be deterring many Saudi women from pursuing their campaign.

      Manal al-Sharif, one of the organisers of Women2Drive, says they have been contacted by 1,023 women who want to drive - and by 192 women from across the country who are willing to teach them.

      They are now looking to recruit volunteers.

      "Women want to drive and they are taking actual steps towards that," said Ms Sharif.

      27 June 2011 Last updated at 23:07 GMT

      Saudi women turn to social media for the right to drive

      By Katy Watson Middle East business reporter, BBC News




      WATCH: Saudi Arabia's women are forced to rely on men to do the driving - which puts many jobs off-limits, and makes running a business almost impossible

      The video shows a young woman getting into her car for a spin around town with a friend. Giggling away, they sound excited yet nervous. And all the while, they comment on the reactions of passers-by.

      So far, the story sounds uneventful. After all, millions of women across the world drive every day without a second thought.

      Only the difference is, this video was shot by 28-year old Solafa from Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that bans women from driving.

      Driving change

      On June 17, dozens of videos similar to Solafa's surfaced on the internet, all showing women behind the wheel in defiance of a ban that is not enforced by law but is a religious fatwa imposed by Muslim clerics.

      It was a protest of a different kind - unlike the mass demonstrations that have been seen throughout the region this year, this was a campaign of just 50 women.

      But one thing it has in common with the Arab protests is the role social media played.

      Through Twitter and Facebook, the 'Women2Drive' campaign gave women a voice for other people to hear. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly supported their cause. Even some of the Saudi royals have backed what the women are doing.


       

      Solafa Kurdi uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia to YouTube.com

      Solafa and her friends joined the campaign to prove a point.

      "Being a photographer needs me to be in different places and at different times," says Solafa. "I have to pay around $500 every month just for a driver, when I could do what he's doing myself."

      Although Solafa says she can afford that extra cost, it is more of a burden for families where women are paid lower salaries.

      "The minimum wage for a Saudi worker is around 3,000 riyals ($800; £500)," Solafa says. "If you're going to put half of that on a driver, there goes half of your salary, it's almost like paying taxes."

      Status update

      The likes of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube have enabled the women to challenge the status quo more easily.

      A recent report published by the Dubai School of Government examined the role social media has played in the Arab uprising. It found that the percentage of women who used Facebook rose from 32% to 33.5% in the first three months of this year.

      A small percentage increase maybe, especially when you consider that on average, women globally constitute 61% of Facebook users. Nevertheless, while the percentage of women users in the Arab world creeps up, the proportion of male Facebook users in the region is falling.


       

      The social media campaign gained a huge international following

      Looking at the effect of social media on the region's economy is still in its infancy, according to Fadi Salem, Director of Governance and Innovation at the Dubai School of Government and the co-author of the report. Nevertheless, it does have potential.

      "If compared to the emergence of the internet over the last decade and how it contributed to economic development, there are many indicators suggesting that this could be the case as well for social media," says Salem.

      "In theory it has this personal characteristic, it has the anonymity, if that's a barrier for some women to participate or start businesses or join a political discussion."

      And taking part is crucial for the Gulf's biggest economy.

      Working women

      More than half of Saudi's university graduates are women.

      Last month saw the opening of the world's largest women-only university in Riyadh. But when it comes to the world of work, it is a different story.

      According to the International Labour Organisation, in 2009 just 17% of women of working age were in employment in Saudi Arabia. That compares with neighbouring United Arab Emirates where 42% of women work and Qatar, where half the women work.


       

      The proportion of working Saudi women is very low compared to other Gulf countries

      Mohammad Al-Qahtani is the head of Saudi Arabia's Civil and Political Rights Association.

      He accompanied his wife in the passenger seat on June 17 and says he will make sure his 13-year-old daughter learns to drive too.

      "Women's driving is part of it but it's not the whole thing. You have other social restrictions, religious restrictions for women not to work in certain professions," Mohammad says.

      "You add all these together and you get this bleak picture of 17% participation, which is one of the lowest in the world."

      Even without the full participation of women in the labour market, Saudi Arabia has huge unemployment problems.

      One in three people under the age of 25 is jobless in Saudi Arabia. Foreign workers - and that includes the thousands of drivers working for Saudi women - outnumber the Saudi nationals working in the Kingdom.

      So what is the solution?

      "We should accommodate small and medium sized enterprises, we should create more jobs in the private sectors," says Mohammad.

      "If you ask any typical Saudi female businesswoman you get this sense of resentment that she's forced out of her business. She has to hire a male guardian to take care of her business.

      "All these restrictions tend to force women to quit their business altogether. It's a big loss not only for them but the economy as a whole."

      International assignment

      And so many women in Saudi choose to work abroad.

      Dr Hibah Shata is a Saudi dentist who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for 10 years.

      Business is easier for her in Dubai. The system is set up to encourage women, she says. Nevertheless, she thinks the culture in the region, that emphasises the protection of women, can hold them back.


       

      Dr Hibah Shata has worked in the UAE for 10 years. She says it's much easier to do business there as a woman.

      "The woman is with her father and her brother, then her husband and her children, so there is somebody to take care of her all the time, and that's the shelter that the woman has had for so long," Dr Shata says.

      "I think that's one of the challenges that women who are trying to be in business and be equal to men face, because men don't take them as seriously.

      "They don't see them very independent as they grow up."

      Social media seems to be changing that.

      Twitter and Facebook accounts are giving more women a voice outside their own home. But they still face opposition from some quarters in giving women the same rights as men.

      Turning online campaigns into meaningful political and economic participation is still a way off.


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