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Driving While Female

The video is a shaky, homemade effort, obviously shot from the rear passenger seat of a car as it carefully drives around the streets of Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia. At the wheel is a woman in large, dark sunglasses, her head tightly covered by a black scarf, talking animatedly with a friend next to her while she navigates the streets like a pro.

Except that for this act of defiance, Manal al-Sharif was thrown in jail for nine days, released on May 30 only after agreeing not to participate in a national protest against the ban on women drivers on June 17. Oh, and her cell phone was turned off.

That this abhorrent restriction exists in a supposedly civilized country defies reason. In the video, al-Sharif and her companion detail the consequences of the ban on ordinary Saudi women. A friend pays one-third of her salary just for a driver. Another was driven by her 10-year-old son, and unsafely at that. Al-Sharif was harassed by her own driver, as are other women. Many simply remain imprisoned in their homes, without the means to pay for what are effectively chaperons.

There’s nothing Islamic or even traditionally Saudi about this ban, instituted in 1990 after a peaceful but audacious demonstration by prominent women on the streets of Riyadh. The world should carefully monitor the Women2Drive protest June 17 and support the dignity and purpose of Saudi women who merely want the right to navigate their lives on their own.

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