|King Abdullah has been urged to free Manal as-Sherif and make a clear statement on women's right to drive [AFP]
The arrest of a Saudi woman for defying the kingdom's female driving ban has been condemned by international and local rights groups amid an outpouring of support from other Saudi women, who posted video clips showing themselves behind the wheel.
Manal al-Sherif, 32, was arrested on Sunday after a video clip was posted online of her much-publicised drive last week, part of an effort to bring attention to her campaign to encourage women across Saudi Arabia to collectively protest against the driving ban.
Her Facebook page, called 'Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself', was removed after more than 12,000 people indicated their support for its call to women drivers to take to the streets on June 17. The campaign's Twitter account also was deactivated.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women - both Saudi and foreign - from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
The issue is a highly emotional one in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even travel without their husbands' or fathers' permission.
On Tuesday, international rights groups as well as local activists called for al-Sherif's release.
Human Rights Watch warned the arrest will hurt the country's image.
'Open to mockery'
"Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation - and, in fact, to mockery - around the world," Christoph Wilcke, spokesman, said. "The longer she stays in prison, the more the kingdom will have to answer for."
A local rights group, the Association of Saudi Women's Rights, visited al-Sherif in the detention centre in the eastern city of Dammam where she was ordered held for five days, and urged the Saudi government to "take a decisive stance and give women the right to drive their cars".
"This is a natural right," the group said.
Over the past couple of days, at least two young Saudi women appeared in online video clips driving their cars in support of al-Sherif and defiance of the ban.
One young woman, identified only as Ruba and dressed in the all-encompassing black abaya all women must wear in public, was shown driving inside a compound in Riyadh. "Ruba drove in Riyadh. Congratulations Ruba," the voice of her female companion is heard saying.
Another, a teenage girl whose name was not given, was filmed by a male companion in the eastern city of Jiddah. "After this car, turn right and slow down," he was heard saying.
About 800 Saudi people have signed a petition urging King Abdullah to release al-Sherif and to make a clear statement on women's right to drive.
"We are fed up," Waleed Aboul Khair, a lawyer and rights activists said. "The society has moved. The society is not silent anymore," Aboul Khair said.
There is no written Saudi law banning women from driving, only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics that are enforced by police.
King Abdullah has promised reforms in the past and has taken some tentative steps to ease restrictions on women. But the Saudi monarchy relies on Wahhabi clerics to give religious legitimacy to its rule and is deeply reluctant to defy their entrenched power.
Al-Sherif was initially detained for several hours on Saturday but was released after she signed a pledge agreeing not to drive. She was taken into custody again before dawn on Sunday and ordered held for five days while the case was investigated.