Manal al Sharif is a Saudi Arabian woman who planned a June 17th protest against the country's ban of women drivers. She uploaded this video Thursday showing her behind the wheel. Today, authorities sentenced her to five days in prison.
Al Sharif, a computer security consultant who learned to drive in the United States, had arranged the protest to note the idiocy of Saudi Arabia's driving ban, the only one of its kind in the world. While al Sharif noted there were no laws in the country's Constitution against it, the country's Sunni Islamic religious edicts say women are not allowed to drive and must have written approval from a father, husband, brother or son to leave the country, work or travel abroad. Women are also barred from public transit, and often have to rely on hired drivers.
Al Sharif told CNN she launched the protest after an evening of frustration in trying to get home:
"I had to walk on the street for half an hour looking for a cab. I was harassed by every single car because it was late at night and I was walking alone...I kept calling my brother to pick me up, but his phone wasn't answering. I was crying in the street. A 32-year-old grown woman, a mother, crying like a kid because I couldn't find anyone to bring me home."
In the video she posted, al Sharif noted stories of women who've been able to save lives because they could drive. She had also called for support from Saudi men, and told backers to video and upload their driving. Her protest had garnered thousands of supporters in Saudi Arabia, but also backlash such as a Facebook group calling for women who drove on June 17 to be whipped. (Given some of the stunts performed by male Saudi drivers, their worries seem misplaced.)
After being detained briefly Saturday, al Sharif was arrested again Sunday; the video, which had been viewed 500,000 times since Thursday, was taken down, and the Facebook page of the protest pulled. According to local reports, al Sharif was sentenced to five days in prison and charged with: "bypassing rules and regulations, driving a car within the city, enabling a journalist to interview her while driving a car, deliberately disseminating the incident to the media, incitement of Saudi women to drive cars, and turning public opinion against the regulations."
At the moment, al Sharif's protest rests on a single Twitter entry for Women2Drive: "Not what we expected. We have to do something." As the 50th anniversary of the "Freedom Riders" who desegregated transit in the southern United States shows, when your list of supposed crimes reads like badges of honor, you're on the right road.