BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women are still “enslaved” through Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, an activist from the conservative Muslim kingdom said on Friday as the country prepared to lift a decades-old ban on women driving.
Manal al-Sharif hit world headlines in 2011 when she was jailed for filming a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that had banned women from getting behind the wheel.
The ban was seen as an emblem of the Muslim kingdom’s repression of women, and the decision to lift it has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But for al-Sharif, the fight is far from over because women in Saudi Arabia live under the supervision of a male guardian whose permission they need to marry or travel abroad.
“Imagine your son becomes your guardian,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Sydney, Australia, where she is based.
“No matter my capabilities as a woman, I am still enslaved to somebody else. Freedom for me is to live with dignity, and if my dignity and freedom is controlled by a man, I will never be free.”
Al-Sharif is launching a new campaign, #Miles4Freedom, calling on women around the world to log their names, existing or new car mileage and location on a map starting Sunday, when Saudi women can legally get behind the wheel.
When she gets 1 million logged miles, al-Sharif said she would send the open petition to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Prince Mohammed.
“Instead of collecting signatures, it is a creative way to use the symbol of driving that women are still enslaved even if they are driving,” she said.
Rights activists have urged caution following the detention of nearly a dozen activists since May, most of them women who had campaigned for greater freedoms. Some were later released.
The arrests have revived criticism of Prince Mohammed’s approach to ambitious reforms as part of his push to diversify the world’s top oil exporter’s economy.
“While people are celebrating on Sunday we shouldn’t forget the people who fought for lifting this ban are in jail,” said al-Sharif, whose campaign is also designed to put pressure on authorities to release those still detained.
After the arrests, al-Sharif said she scrapped her plan to return to Saudi Arabia. She had hoped to drive legally for first time on Sunday on the same road where she was arrested.
Al-Sharif said she had also received death threats and a call telling her to keep quiet, but she has refused.
“I am so happy I want to be there. I know Saudi Arabia will never be the same again,” she said.
“Women will have easy access to transportation and that means they will be more part of the workforce.”
While al-Sharif is joyful at the prospect of women being able to drive, she also hopes her campaign will raise global awareness about the guardianship system.
“Women driving is just the first step - we have a long way to go,” she said.
Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org