Women activists campaigning for their rights in Saudi Arabia isn't something unheard of. In 1990, several women in Riyadh drove their cars, protesting against the driving ban for women in the conservative kingdom. Almost 17 years later, Wajeha al-Huwaider (Co-founder of the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia) wrote to King Abdullah asking for women to be allowed to drive on International Women's Day. Fast-forward to 2011; Women's rights activist, Manal al-Sharif, uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving a car in the streets of al-Khobar and was jailed for 9 days. All three incidents garnered considerable media attention; yet, Sharif's campaign not only saw the international audience sit up and take notice, but was also widely covered by the New York Times and other publications in the USA. What triggered this response? Unlike al-Huwaider's movement, when social media was still in the stages of infancy, the movement in 2011 saw the internet buzz to life, building on the surge of social media. Here are some reasons why Manal-al-Sharif's campaign received world-wide attention:
- Social media, which has helped drive protests in the Arab world in recent times, was the perfect platform for Manal Sharif to spread her message.
- Supporters leveraged the power of Twitter to spread the news; over 30,000 comments showed up within days of her arrest.
- The overwhelming reactions from international and local media resulted in her subsequent release on 21st May 2011.
- The Women2Drive Facebook campaign was a follow up of Sharif's YouTube video, which received 600,000 hits within 3 days of her release.
- The Facebook page currently has 15,117 'likes'.
- On 22nd May, Sharif was detained again; this time she was released after 9 days on 30th May.
- Encouraged by the support on various social media channels, Sharif urged women to start driving from 17th June 2011, although she was prohibited from driving herself.
- Following the initial success of the campaign, approximately 40 women (official figure) tweeted about their driving escapades on June 18, 2011.
Reactions from All Over the Globe
- The Saudi government reportedly removed the YouTube video, which was once again uploaded by supporters.
- Although the original Facebook and Twitter accounts were removed, the online support continued through copies of earlier Facebook and Twitter pages.
- A significant number of people who were against the campaign, on their Facebook page (now removed), warned the women of serious consequences if they drove.
- People from around the world launched the Honk for Saudi Women viral campaign expressing their support.
- Online activism platform Change.org sent a petition to Oprah asking her to make a similar video of her support.
- Change.org also called on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support the cause.
- Clinton then raised the issue with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal and publicly announced her support for Saudi women drivers. However, she also stressed that the US will not interfere with the movement.
- Several U.S. House of Representatives members, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, tweeted their support.
- Other Congresswomen who expressed their support include Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Rep. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands).
- A public open letter was signed by a number of Congresswomen including Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).
- One of the European Union's top diplomats, Catherine Ashton, released a statement that described the campaign as 'courageous'.
Social Media Buzz
Analysis (between 28th May and 27thJune, 2011) by the Brand Monitor team at Position² revealed some interesting results:
- When compared to Saudi Arabia, which registered the least conversation volumes at 1.26%, USA accounted for the maximum conversations on various social media channels (44%).
- This was followed by Australia and the UK, which registered 18% and 13% volumes respectively.
- The above data highlights two things: a) The driving ban on women in Saudi witnessed a global reaction b) Although the campaign did receive some coverage on the national news (Saudi Arabia), most people on Twitter and Facebook preferred to remain anonymous fearing government backlash; perhaps this could be one of the major reasons for the negligible conversation volumes registered in Saudi Arabia.
Demographic studies show that:
- Surprisingly, more men discussed the campaign (at 64%), than women (36%).
- Conversation samples show that men either opposed the ban and extended their complete support or felt that preventing women from driving was the right thing to do.
- The 20-35 age group spoke about this the most (36%), followed by the +65 age bracket (26%).
According to the data populated by Position²:
- Twitter accounted for the maximum conversations at 72% (people tweeted their support and wished the women drives good luck).
- 13% of the conversations were centered on blogs, followed by news at 12%.
- Although the Women2Drive campaign was first launched on Facebook, it soon spread to other social media platforms, rendering the Facebook volumes to just 1%.
What We Can Expect
The fact that Manal-al-Sharif's campaign was kept alive by her supporters, even after it was deleted from various social media channels, shows the dramatic impact social media can have in today's times. As seen in previous cases, today's socially engaged audience likes to converse; and once an incident goes viral, there's not much that can be done in terms of controlling what follows. Sharif's idea of uploading a YouTube video can be viewed as a smart move; the campaign found its way to other social networking channels in no time, with the impact being felt at home as well as aboard.
Although the June 17 movement saw several women drive around the country, it will be interesting to see how much additional support and attention the Women2Drive social media movement will draw in the next few weeks. People closely following the campaign, both online as well as offline, want to know if the involvement of the US (both politically and otherwise) will have any impact on Saudi laws that prevent women from driving.
According to our data, the male population, especially on Twitter, has been very active in discussions pertaining to this issue. However, as the campaign continues to gather support every day, we have more and more women tweeting about their successful driving experiences in Saudi. As the momentum continues to build, we can expect to see an increase in the number of women using social media make their voices heard.