Saudi regime protester Manal al-Sharif cancels US trip over death threats

Manal al-Sharif forced to pull out of ceremony to honour her activism

Guy Adams
Friday 08 June 2012 08:26 BST
Manal al-Sharif in New York in April after she was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people
Manal al-Sharif in New York in April after she was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people (Getty Images)

A Saudi woman who publicly defied the country's ban on female drivers has been forced to cancel a planned trip to the United States after receiving multiple death threats and learning that she is the subject of a fatwa issued by a fundamentalist Muslim cleric.

Manal al-Sharif became a global symbol of the struggle for gender equality in the Middle East after a video of her driving through the streets of Khobar was uploaded to YouTube last April, at the height of the Arab Spring. She was later arrested and imprisoned for nine days.

On Wednesday this week she had been due to be honoured for her high-profile activism at an awards ceremony in Washington organised by Vital Voices, a US-based pressure group which campaigns for women's rights and has close ties to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

But 48 hours before the event, organisers were told that Ms Sharif, a divorced single mother, had reluctantly decided to stay in Saudi Arabia, amid what appears to be growing fears for both her personal safety and that of her family. In an email, she said a recent filmed speaking appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference held annually in Norway, had brought a slew of threats from conservatives angered by her feminist critique of Saudi Arabia's highly-repressive laws and social conventions.

Tensions are also rising in advance of 17 June, the first anniversary of an organised "protest drive" that saw Ms Sharif and dozens of female supporters get behind the wheel in defiance of misogynistic laws which make it illegal for women to drive in the country.

Explaining her decision to stay at home, she said: "Threats I was faced with after speaking in Oslo made me take the decision to keep a low profile to be able to prepare for the first anniversary of 17 June."

It is not the first time Ms Sharif has been targeted for her activism. Last month, she told The Independent how her growing political profile had led to her losing a job at Aramco, a Saudi-controlled oil company where she had worked in information security for more than a decade.

She has since been the subject of a fatwa issued by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi, a cleric who follows Wahhabism, one of the most unbending forms of the Muslim faith which has a huge following in the Islamic state. He declared Ms Sharif a "hypocrite," a designation which amounts to questioning her religious allegiance and therefore placing her safety at further risk.

Initial reports of her last-minute decision to cancel the US trip suggested that she had been the subject of threats by un-named "Saudi officials".

But in an email to The Independent, Ms Sharif stressed that no threats against had come directly from members of the country's government.

Despite her absence from Washington, Ms Sharif did not go entirely unrecognised at the Vital Voices ceremony which was to have seen five "heroines" of the Arab Spring receive medals.

When the four other honourees were called on to the stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House, they left a gap to represent where Ms Sharif should have been standing.

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