The woman above, Manal al-Sharif, is currently in a Saudi Arabian jail because of what she’s doing in this video: driving. Sharif, who is a 32-year old information technology specialist, is normally expected to hire a driver to take her to her job because women are not legally permitted to drive. Right now, there is a growing movement taking place to allow women to drive. A lot of that awareness is being spread over the Internet, which has proven to be a crucial and powerful tool in not only this movement, but the Arab Spring. This is one of those times where social media actually serves an important purpose. Let’s take some time to appreciate that.
Sharif’s lawyer says that while a woman driving is not a major crime and his client should not be considered a criminal (“This was a mistake,” he says), it is taking an increasing number of women (and men) to speak up and convince the Saudi government and other conservative stalwarts that this law should be overturned. And they have taken to expressing their opinions in the only public forum easily available to them: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, etc. In the wake of Sharif’s arrest, a Facebook group called “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself” gained over 12,000 members, then was taken down by the Saudi government. (And then came back.) Similarly, a spoof Twitter account under Sharif’s name kept falsely reporting the cancellation of protests. (The video above was also originally taken down.)
But no matter what the government tries to do, supporters of the movement will not go away so easily. As in the past, Internet service providers have been shut down per government orders, blocking the Internet from the citizens of entire countries (see: Egypt). But a move like that doesn’t stop things that were posted and went viral prior to the shutdown. For example, 26-year old Asmaa Mahfouz recorded a video viewed all over the world and credited as a major catalyst in the protests that led to Hosni Mubarek‘s takedown. Ironically, she urges the women who are at home spending all their time on the Internet to get off their computers and show up at these protests. Her words, translated:
“Sitting home and just following us on news or on Facebook leads to our humiliation — it leads to my humiliation! … If you have honor and dignity as a man, come and protect me, and other girls in the protest. If you stay home, you deserve what’s being done to you, and you will be guilty before your nation and your people. Go down to the street, send SMSes, post it on the internet, make people aware.”
Since Mubarek is no longer in power, it’s probably fair to say that messages such as these, sent to numerous people through numerous networks throughout the Arab world, work. (An Internet shutdown is also, um, pretty conspicuously tyrannical to the domestic and international communities.)
In Sharif’s case, the movement to allow women the right to drive has produced confessions from women who have already been driving, arguments for the economic benefits of women driving, and an online petition addressed to King Abdullah with 600 signatures — a rarity for Saudis who generally don’t like to “attach their names to causes,” according to the New York Times. And while religious clerics and conservatives (including some women) who want the ban to remain are also utilizing the Internet to further their cause, the international response to the antiquated law seems to highlight how out of touch they look in the context of the modern world. The Internet is very big, very young, and it’s on the side of progress. (At least for the most part.)
It’s a case of fighting fire with fire, but it’s a sign that the Internet can be such a powerful and effective tool in creating progress for human rights on an international level. It’s a nice thing to remember in a world full of Kardashians and Sheens. And we will forgive the people who name their baby “Facebook.”
There is a great article about women, the Internet, and the Arab Spring at this link. And if you want to show your support for the women of Saudi Arabia, the “Teach Me How to Drive” Facebook group is here (and running)!
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