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Thursday, October 31, 2013

In Saudi Arabia, Even Writing About Female Drivers Can Mean Trouble

A columnist in Saudi Arabia who published a commentary on women’s rights has been detained by the authorities as they cracked down on a campaign by the kingdom’s women this month to defy a ban on driving.

The columnist, Tariq al-Mubarak, wrote an article that was published in English on Oct. 7, and in Arabic the previous day, on the website of the international daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. In part, it says:

Tens of thousands of female students are learning what independence means, due to the several years they spend studying in the West. Young people, both men and women, have become responsible for building their personalities and giving a special meaning to their lives. This new self-regard is crucial to forming their hopes for the future, and it cannot be ignored simply because it is a cultural trait, especially in an open world such as ours today.

Those monitoring the language of women on social networks right now will notice a tone indicative of suppressed anger that results from the difference between their own sense of self and their position in the current social system. Their anger largely wells up from the need to recognize the individuality of women in the world we live in today, whether we like it or not. This individuality is being violated in several ways.

Women are viewed as a burden on men in many dealings with the government. They are unable to move around the cities in which they live unaccompanied by a man due to a lack of public transportation or restrictions on women driving cars. They sign up to a broken system of marriage â€" broken because of the values on which it was established and its authoritarian nature. And that is not to mention other issues, including divorce and child custody.

We need to reconsider some concepts of Islamic jurisprudence, keeping in mind the human dignity that has been endorsed by all religions.

Since he was detained, a petition calling for his release was started. Messages of support for him were posted on Twitter along with others, such as #women2drive, that are tracking the progress of and repercussions on Saudi women who have taken to the wheel to defy the ban.

Human Rights Watch, in a statement, said activists told the organization that on Oct. 27, the day after dozens of women drove in the organized protest campaign, Mr. Mubarak was summoned by the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Department to question him about his support for the movement.

Relatives of Mr. Mubarak told activists that he was taken into custody and has no access to family or lawyers, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi women started the driving campaign in 2011, and had published videos of themselves driving in the kingdom. They announced in advance that Oct. 26 would be another attempt to get women behind the wheel.

The Saudi writer Ahmed al-Omran posted or linked to video as part of a recent report on his blog saying about 100 clerics went to the royal court just before the scheduled Oct. 26 driving protests in an effort to block them.

A Saudi writer posted on his blog a YouTube video of a Saudi cleric speaking about their opposition to women driving.

“The clerics came from around the Kingdom to meet the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and officials to indicate the serious risk facing the country,” Sheikh Nasser al-Omar said in one.

Another video of a cleric expressing the reason they were against women driving.

Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud said, in part, “We came here for many issues, most importantly to combat Westernization and particularly women.”

Mr. Omran has also written about the Interior Ministry’s warnings before Oct. 26, which it referred to as an “alleged day of female driving.”

Mr. Mubarak, the journalist who was detained, is employed as a secondary schoolteacher. He has also written about how Islamic movements in the Gulf were engaging with the so-called Arab Spring changes sweeping through other countries.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.