UPDATE: Saudi Arabia: Manal Al Sharif is released

The Star

Faced with an avalanche of indignation at home and abroad, Saudi authorities on Monday freed a woman jailed nine days ago for her role in promoting the right to drive for Saudi women. Manal Al Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security specialist employed by the oil giant ARAMCO, was detained May 22 after she defied the kingdom's ban on female drivers and posted a video of her action on YouTube, as part of a national campaign. The divorced mother of a 5-year-old son was charged with “inciting women to drive” and “rallying public opinion.” It is not clear if those charges have been formally dropped. Her lawyer, Adnan Al Saleh, declined to discuss the conditions of her release. 

Another lawyer familiar with her case, Waleed Abu Al Khair, said Al Sharif was warned not to drive, nor to speak publicly about women driving. She was also told that she had to return for questioning by prosecutors if so requested, Al Khair said.

Her supporters, who have kept her case alive on Facebook, Twitter and in Saudi daily newspapers, were elated at her release.

“Another chapter has been added to the Saudi women's struggle for freedom and equality with a great young new hero called Manal Al-Sharif,” veteran women's rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaider wrote in an email. “As the Arabs say, ‘The dogs bark but the caravan continues moving ahead.'”

Another Saudi female expressed relief at Al Sharif's release and quickly added that “we will continue this (driving) campaign.”

Al Sharif's detention reignited the volatile debate among Saudis on the issue of women driving.

Newspapers carried columns of support for Al Sharif and for the right of women to drive. Even conservative Saudi women who do not want to drive were appalled that Al Sharif was jailed for something that is not a moral or criminal offence, but merely violates a long-held and divisive social custom.

At the same time, the ultraconservative religious establishment, which generally supports the ban, reiterated in sermons and online forums why the act of driving by women is an abomination that would lead to all kinds of sin. Some labeled Al Sharif licentious for her motoring campaign.

“The debate is more polarized” than ever, said Hussein Shobokshi, a businessman and newspaper columnist. But, unlike in years past, he said, “sensible arguments for women driving are prevailing.”

He noted that one prominent sheikh who has come out in favour of allowing women to drive, Ahmed Bin Baz, is the son of the late Islamic scholar who issued a 1990 fatwa, or religious opinion, that said women should not drive.

“Allowing women to drive should not be looked at like a military draft,” said Shobokshi, noting that it wouldn't be mandatory for everyone. Rather, families could decide on their own whether their female members should drive or not.

Lawyer Al Saleh declined to speculate on why his client was released. Earlier, he told local media that Al Sharif had sent a letter to King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz seeking her freedom.

Also, more than 4,500 Saudis signed an online petition to the king requesting him to free her.

It appears that the conditions of her release will not permit Al Sharif, who lives in the eastern town of Al Khobar, to continue public work on behalf of the June 17 campaign.

Using Facebook, its organizers are encouraging women who hold international driver's licenses to get behind the wheel and do an errand that day as a way to demonstrate their desire to be allowed to drive.