David Randall: Miffed over free speech? Try being a woman driver in Saudi Arabia

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The Independent Online

In this country, people get awfully het up because the law might take a dim view of them tweeting the name of a footballer who has allegedly proved unable to resist the ready charms of a former Big Brother contestant. Twitterers and bloggers have hammered away at their keyboards, columnists even broken off from prosecuting private vendettas to rage against this affront to democracy. Questions have been asked in both Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister has chipped in, and word even came, courtesy of some catchpenny spin doctor, that the issue would be raised at a meeting of European leaders.

In Saudi Arabia, things are rather different. Having something you've posted online suppressed is no mere theoretical possibility. It is a reality, as was proved again last week in a case that concerns a rather more fundamental human right than the liberty to circulate gossip about celebrities.

In this land beyond the fundamentalist looking glass, women are banned from driving. Unsurprisingly, some of them object to this, and last Saturday one of them – Manal al-Sharif – posted on YouTube a video of herself defying the ban. She was arrested, kept in jail for five days, to which a 10-day extension was added on Friday. Furthermore, the campaign she organises – "Teach Me How To Drive So I Can Protect Myself" – had its Facebook page closed and Twitter account deactivated. It has been calling for women to get behind a steering wheel on 17 June and join a drive-through protest against the law.

The repression indicates just how nervous authorities in the kingdom are about any demonstration these days, even one likely to be as small-scale and non-violent as women merely driving down the street.

A large number of Saudi men also feel threatened by the idea of women expressing their views – or have been persuaded that they do. A Facebook group has been started called "The Iqal Campaign". The iqal is the cord used in the traditional regional headdress, and men are being urged to use these to beat any women who drive. This unpleasant Facebook page, which has 6,000 supporters and urges men to physically attack women, has not been taken down by the authorities.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which does not allow women to drive (nor does it let them vote or travel without the permission of their father or husband). Women's driving was outlawed in November 1990 when, in a codification of long-standing custom, it was made illegal in an announcement which called females who drove "portents of evil". Only the week before, 15 women demanding the right to drive had steered a convoy of 15 cars through the streets of Riyadh. Some were subsequently suspended from their jobs, others received threatening phone calls, and Islamic activists distributed leaflets calling them "communists", "American agents", and "secularists".

The ploy – popular among the region's repressive regimes – of blaming any embryonic calls for democratic or equal rights on the malign influence of unnamed foreigners has been trotted out almost daily throughout this year's Arab Spring. And last week, out it came again, courtesy of the Saudi daily Al-Watan. This paper, owned by a member of the ruling family, says Ms al-Sharif broke down in "an episode of crying" during interrogation and blamed the let-women-drive campaign on influences "from outside the kingdom". Her lawyer was adamant she said no such thing. Several Facebook groups have now been set up in support of her, including one called "We Are All Manal al-Sharif"which has 19,000 people signed up.

The justification for not letting women drive is given as "Islamic tradition". When the Saudi Ministry of the Interior announced the ban in 1990, it said: "Women's driving of cars contradicts the sound Islamic attitude of the Saudi citizen, who is jealous about his sacred ideals." This sounds very like what we in the West call cant. The ban has nothing to do with the sacred, and everything to do with keeping women down.