UPDATE: On Thursday, Manal Al-Sharif clarified on Twitter her reason for not attending the award ceremony in Washington the night before. "Not being in #vvlead award yesterday has nothing to do with Saudi officials approaching me," she tweeted. "The main reason for not being in #vvlead was for my family safety after receiving death threats from insane people," she wrote.
Sharif pointed to a blog post on The Huffington Post by Pedro Pizano, a strategy and development associate at the Human Rights Foundation, who wrote on Wednesday about how Sharif has been the target of thousands of attacks online and in print media in Saudi Arabia. The attacks came after YouTube users took a video of a recent speech Sharif gave in Oslo and doctored it in order to portray her as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam.
WASHINGTON -- Manal al-Sharif is a global symbol of women's rights because she posted a videotape of herself driving on an open road in her home country of Saudi Arabia. The video went viral, and caused a sensation in Saudi Arabia.
Celebrated for her bravery in a conservative society that relegates women to the shadows -- and that bars them from simple free acts such as driving -- al-Sharif nevertheless decided not to risk coming to the U.S. Wednesday night to join other Arab women in receiving a prestigious award from a foundation with close ties to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Several sources with knowledge of details of the 15th annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards at the Kennedy Center told The Huffington Post that Saudi officials, angered by an earlier al-Sharif trip to the U.S., made it clear to her, as one source put it, "that there would be consequences for her family if she chose to go to Washington."
She was conspicuous by her absence Wednesday night.
The Vital Voices group, an outgrowth of Clinton's interest in women's rights as first lady in the 1990s, annually gives awards to an all-star cast of female entrepreneurs, political leaders and social activists around the world. The glittering event is a major one in Washington, especially for the city's vast array of professional women in politics, diplomacy and business. The awards are considered major international honors and for women, only a notch below the Nobel prize, which Vital Voices honorees also have won.
This year the group decided to honor five women who have been leaders of the Arab Spring movement, including, in addition to al-Sharif: Marianne Ibrahim of Egypt, Salwa Bugaighis of Libya, Shatha Al-Harazi of Yemen and Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia.
After a video introduction by Secretary Clinton (who was in Turkey Wednesday night), the four arranged themselves on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage with a gap where al-Sharif would have been.
Yahyaoui, an activist and blogger who was barred from her country for four years, used her moment on the stage to publicly protest her Saudi compatriot's absence and to decry the Saudi regime. She said that the women on the stage stood for greater freedom and equal rights in their home countries, and that even the Saudis would have to recognize the movement.
Her remarks drew a prolonged standing ovation.
Sources at the event say that al-Sharif had planned to come until 48 hours earlier, but she was told at the last minute that she might want to reconsider. After her earlier visit, to receive an award from the State Department, her husband was barred from joining her on the trip and she lost her corporate job, the sources said. This time the concern was for her son, the sources said, adding that they thought al-Sharif would eventually leave Saudi Arabia for the relative freedom and security of Dubai.
A call to the Saudi Embassy Wednesday night for comment was not returned.