DUBAI — A Saudi woman has been charged with inciting females to defy a driving ban, a “violation” for which the penalty remains unclear and that is not covered by a clear law, her lawyer said on Monday.
Manal al-Sharif was arrested on Saturday while driving in the Eastern Province city of Al-Khobar, a day after she posted a footage on the video-sharing website YouTube showing her behind the wheel.
Although traffic police released her after a few hours, the 32-year-old computer security consultant was later detained again from her home by criminal investigation police, lawyer Adnan al-Saleh said.
“She has been charged with spurring women to drive, on the Internet, and inciting public opinion,” he told AFP by telephone, shortly after meeting Sharif in prison.
He said police ordered her to remain in custody for five days pending further investigations.
A public campaign, meanwhile, has been launched on Internet social networks urging King Abdullah to intervene on behalf of Sharif, one of a group of activists planning a nationwide protest next month against the ban.
But Saleh, who was asked by Sharif’s family to defend her, said the offence was not clear.
“The crime has to be defined … Calling on women to drive is not a crime,” he said, adding there was no punishment for such a “violation” and hoping her penalty would be limited to “driving without a Saudi driving licence.”
He also pointed out that King Abdullah, ruler of a kingdom which applies the strict Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam, has the final say in the ban that is based on a religious fatwa, or edict.
“As this is based on a fatwa and not a final decree, there is a problem. The ruler has the right to end the dispute by deciding” on whether to allow women to drive or not, he said.
A petition signed by about 230 Saudi citizens has been posted on the Internet, urging the king to secure Sharif’s release and to make a final decision on the issue of women drivers.
“We urge you to immediately release this daughter of the homeland, Manal al-Sharif, and to end the injustice inflicted on her,” the signatories said in the petition.
“We think it is time to come up with a clear decision on the issue of women driving,” it added.
Sharif’s action came a few days after another Saudi woman, Najla al-Hariri, drove in the western region of Jeddah over a few days, insisting on her right to drive.
Women’s rights activists are planning to get behind the wheel on June 17 in a nationwide protest against the strict ban on women driving, which activists insist is based only on conservative traditions and not on a clear law.
In addition to not being allowed to drive, women are banned from travelling without authorisation from a male guardian. They are also obliged to cover from head to toe when in public.
A group of women defied the ban in November 1990, stunning Saudi men by driving around Riyadh in 15 cars before being arrested.
The 47 women who took part in that protest were meted a severe punishment, with authorities suspending many from public sector jobs and reprimanding their male guardians.
In 2008, activist Wajiha Huwaidar posted a video on YouTube showing her driving in the kingdom’s Eastern Province. She escaped arrest by not bumping into a police patrol.
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