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Saudi #Women2Drive campaigner to return to take the wheel

Al-Sharif led the Women2Drive campaign before relocating to Australia [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 September, 2017

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Manal al-Sharif, a leading Saudi activist who steered the Women2Drive campaign, has vowed to return home to be the first woman to legally obtain her licence after the historic decree.
A Sydney-based Saudi rights activist who held a monumental position in the campaign for women to drive in the conservative kingdom vowed to return home on Thursday to become one of the first to legally get behind the wheel.

Manal al-Sharif was imprisoned for nine days after posting a video of herself on YouTube and Facebook driving her car around the eastern city of Khobar in 2011 at the height of the "Women2Drive" protest movement.

She said King Salman's historic decree this week allowing women to drive from next June brought her to tears.

"I can't describe the joy I am feeling. This is a truly historic day," she told The Australian newspaper.

"I’m being honest. I just cried. There had been rumours but you never dare believe them."

Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to ban women driving, and it was seen globally as a symbol of repression in the Gulf kingdom.

"I'm going back, I'm going to drive - legally!" said al-Sharif, who relocated to Australia after her release from jail for the crime of "driving while female".

"My car is still there, the one I drove. I refused to give it up. My family kept it for me. But I will drive legally this time."

But despite the breakthrough that won plaudits internationally and from inside Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif refused to take any credit.

"No, no, it wasn't me, it was everyone doing everything."

The 38-year-old has long campaigned for women's rights in Saudi Arabia and this year published a memoir Daring To Drive, which became a worldwide bestseller.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times in June, she recounted how she narrowly avoided a public whipping for her driving exploits.

"I was threatened - imams wanted me to be publicly lashed - and monitored and harassed," she wrote. "I was pushed out of my job. After that, I had to move from my home. 

"Without a safe place to work or live, with other Saudis calling for my death, I had no choice but to leave the only country I had ever known.

"I had driven with the hope of freeing women in Saudi society - and by freeing women, I also hoped to free men," she added.

'Unprecedented royal decree'

Saudi Arabia, which officially practices an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women.

Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member - normally the father, husband or brother - must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

But on Tuesday night, the kingdom announced an unprecedented royal decree allowing women to drive for the first time in the country's 87-year history.

The move was backed by the kingdom's strict clerical council, overturning years of precedent from the ultra-conservative kingdom's leading religious scholars.

"All the scholars of Islamic law have decided to let the shepherd lead his flock depending on the benefits of the situation," it said, adding that women will have to obtain permission from a male guardian to get hold of a driving licence.

"All of the previous fatwas concerning women driving were based on the benefits and disadvantages. Male guardians will have to look into both sides of this issue," it added.

The lifting of the ban on women driving joins a long list of previous prohibitions in Saudi Arabia such as women appearing in the media, satellite television and music.    

The support of the powerful clerics, who hold influence in the judiciary and education sectors, throws out years of religious edicts from the country's Islamic thinkers and risks giving the impression the clerics answer blindly to the rulers.

The former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz had argued that lifting the ban would corrupt society with promiscuity and sin, while others suggested it would encourage free-mixing between the sexes and corrupt Saudi society.

In a likely measure to ward off criticism from conservatives on the landmark move, online newspaper Sabq said on Tuesday that punishment for people "mocking" royal decrees was no longer than five years in jail.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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