Australia

Death threats for Sydney activist behind Saudi women's driving breakthrough

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The Sydney-based activist behind the movement to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia has cancelled plans to travel home amid death threats.

Manal al-Sharif had planned to return to her native Saudi Arabia and drive from one side of the Middle Eastern country to the other in June when a ban on women driving is due to be lifted.  

As a key figure in the campaign to allow women to drive, the feminist activist thought the journey would be a fitting celebration. 

But she has decided to stay in Sydney where she now lives after six other prominent human rights activists were detained in Saudi Arabia. 

"Being outside the jail and speaking up will be more beneficial I think to the cause than being inside Arabia and in jail," Ms al-Sharif, who kicked off the driving campaign in 2011, told SBS News on Monday. 

"This crackdown is really alarming. Why is it happening now?" 

The arrested activists have been accused of being "traitors", forming a "cell", and making “contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”. 

Amnesty International has described the claims as "blatant intimidation tactics".

Even in her new home, Ms al-Sharif has not escaped the backlash with several death threats against her reported to NSW Police.

"I'm used to it, it's not the first time. I don't care about the online trolls, for me they're just fake," she said.

Manal al-Sharif in Sydney.
Manal al-Sharif speaks to SBS News in Sydney.
SBS News

Smear campaign 

Photos of the activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, a well-known campaigner against the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia, have been circulating on social media stamped with the word "traitor".  

"These women right now are facing a smear campaign and defamation campaign where their pictures are posted online with the word traitor. And this is exactly what happened in 2011," Ms al-Sharif said, referring to accusations by authorities that she was an agent of Iran. 

Lifting the longstanding ban, scheduled for June 24, has been hailed as a progressive reform, in line with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's goal of increasing the number of women in the workforce.

But the crackdown on dissent is undermining the move. 

"If the government is really promoting that we are a new society, we are with human rights, we are with reforms, we are supporting women empowerment, what they're doing is sending the wrong message," Ms al-Sharif said. 

She is hoping it's all a misunderstanding. 

"To me, they're not traitors because I know them in person, none of them are spies."

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