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Where Driving Is a Crime and Speaking About It Leads to Death Threats

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Looking over the long list of women's rights abuses still prevalent in the world today, the prohibition against women driving seems unimportant. The world's media channels would much rather give airtime to activists fighting for the eradication of female genital mutilation, or provide a platform for a heated debate dissecting the pros and cons of the burqa, or analyze the always-prevalent issue of payment equality between the sexes. Yet, this simple freedom to drive speaks volumes about the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. The argument over the right to perform such a commonplace task has blown open the discussion of human rights in the absolutist-male-dominated monarchy and cracked the airtight official policy on dissent itself. Although the window of freedom has only slid open a fraction of an inch, it has inspired women to start claiming their rights as free citizens of Saudi Arabia.

The inspiration toward nonviolent struggle often comes from surprising sources. Such was the case of the "illegal" rock concerts in Czechoslovakia that moved Václav Havel to write Charter 77 and, ultimately, to lead the struggle for a free Czech Republic. The inspiration could be as simple as a song line: "Back to the land of their fathers, land of their fathers," which helped inspire the Singing Revolution in Estonia that effectively ended communist rule. Every step towards freedom must be celebrated, recorded, and supported.

The Arab Spring has confirmed that it is a disservice to brand democracy as a "Western" ideology. Democracy, within the framework of individual rights, represents an inherent aspiration by all people to express their opinions and to hold accountable those that they choose to govern them. While representative democracy by itself does not ensure freedom by any means, as can be seen in many countries, a liberal democracy that grows out of the separation of Mosque and State and the division of government against itself has proven to be the best tool to protect the individual rights of citizens. Furthermore, the nations beholden to these ideas have higher economic development rates, lift more people out of poverty, and, more importantly, have never gone to war against each other, ever.

In contrast, the monarchy of Saudi Arabia has ruled with absolute power for eight decades, and fulfills none of the conditions described above. Although the nation is a signatory of the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and also the Arab Charter of Human Rights, Saudi Arabia continues to deny basic freedoms to over half of its population. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Saudi Arabia denies these rights to its female citizens on a daily basis.

A powerful way to humanize the situation in Saudi Arabia is to learn about Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi woman campaigning for the right to drive in her own country. Ms. al-Sharif traveled to Norway to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum, a recent annual gathering organized to promote democracy, human rights, and justice. She shared her story of growing up female in Saudi Arabia. She told the Forum about the defiant YouTube video she posted last spring that showed her driving, and about her subsequent imprisonment and release from jail. Her experience led her to create a social media campaign called Women2Drive, aimed at eliminating the law against women driving.

On May 10th the Oslo Freedom Forum published Ms. al-Sharif's speech on YouTube. Since then, the video has been viewed more than 300,000 times, mostly from viewers inside the arab peninsula. Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum's YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying Ms. al-Sharif as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam. As a result, Ms. al-Sharif has been the target of thousands of attacks -- on YouTube, Twitter, blogs, online news sites, and even print media in Saudi Arabia.

Some of these attacks are extremely vicious and offensive, including insults and phrases such as: "slut," "dog," "whore," "prostitute," and "traitor." Some explicitly threaten Ms. al-Sharif with violence, sexual assault, and even death. Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring Ms. al-Sharif a "hypocrite" -- thereby questioning Ms. al-Sharif's status as a Muslim and placing her under further risk.

Why would a woman endure this kind of backlash to achieve such a minor freedom? Because in Saudi Arabia, it isn't a minor issue. There is no public transportation, cities are not pedestrian-friendly, and where sidewalks exist it isn't safe for a woman to walk the street. This is why women are bound to use taxis or private drivers -- draining their resources. On average, Saudi women pay upwards of one-third of their salaries to drivers. There are more than one million private drivers -- a black market with no structure for background checks or safety. In families that cannot afford a private driver, children as young as 10 serve as drivers. These factors lead to absurdly high fatalities on the roads.

Perhaps not every Saudi woman wants to drive, but by denying women the opportunity to participate, they deny all women their full rights as equal citizens under the law. Ironically, the same goes for wearing nail polish, or participating in the Olympics, both of which are off-limits to Saudi women. Not every woman wants to sport blue nail polish or throw a javelin, but no government should be able to deny her the opportunity to do so.

The Saudi government has made numerous promises to protect the rights of its female citizens. On paper, it upholds international human rights conventions, and its leaders have assured women that they will gain the right to vote and hold office "in the future." Yet, these empty promises mean nothing without tangible proof of the government's conviction in upholding them. Women are still effectively second-class citizens in their own society. They cannot study, marry, or travel without a male guardian's approval.

Granting women the right to drive won't change the way Saudi Arabia views its women. But it's an urgent necessity and an opportunity to create a dialogue of change in the country. As Manal al-Sharif herself stated when she chose the Arabic phrase that accompanies her social media campaign: "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself."

Pedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.