Saudi women begin challenge to driving ban

A campaign to defy Saudi Arabia`s ban on women driving opened on Friday with reports of some female motorists getting behind the wheel.

Updated: Jun 17, 2011, 13:48 PM IST

Dubai: A campaign to defy Saudi Arabia`s ban on women driving opened on Friday with reports of some female motorists getting behind the wheel amid calls for sustained challenges to the restrictions in the ultraconservative kingdom.

Activists have not appealed for mass protests in any specific sites in Saudi Arabia, but are urging Saudi women to begin a growing mutiny against the male-only driving rules supported by clerics backing austere interpretations of Islam and enforced by powerful morality squads.

Calls for an ongoing road rebellion — inspired in part by the uprisings around the Arab world — could push Western-backed Saudi authorities into difficult choices: either launching a crackdown and facing international pressure or giving way to the demands and angering traditional-minded clerics and other groups opposing reforms.

It also could encourage other challenges by Saudi women, who have not been allowed to vote and must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or take a job.

"We want women from today to begin exercising their rights," said Wajeha al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women`s rights activist who posted Internet clips of herself driving in 2008. "Today on the roads is just the opening in a long campaign. We will not go back."

The plan, she said, is for women who have obtained driving licenses abroad to begin doing their daily errands and commuting on their own.

"We`ll keep it up until we get a royal decree removing the ban," she told The Associated Press.

A protest organizer, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, said at least one Saudi woman drove around the capital Riyadh before dawn without incident. Web message boards set up on Twitter and other social media carried unconfirmed reports that some women also got behind the wheel in the eastern city of Dammam and elsewhere.

Encouragement poured in. "Take the wheel. Foot on the gas," said one Twitter message on the main site women2Drive. Another urged: "Saudi women, start your engines!"

The campaign follows the 10-day detention last month of a 32-year-old woman, Manal al-Sherif, after she posted video of herself driving. She was released after reportedly signing a pledge that she would not drive again or speak publicly.

Her case, however, sparked an outcry from international rights groups and brought direct appeals to Saudi`s rulers to lift the driving ban on women — the only such countrywide rule in the world.

There is no written Saudi law barring women from driving — only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics following a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism.

They claim the driving ban protects against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive.

Saudi King Abdullah has promised some social reforms, but he depends on the clerics to support his ruling family and is unlikely to take steps that would bring backlash from the religious establishment.

In London, the rights groups Amnesty International called Thursday on Saudi officials to "stop treating women as second-class citizens and open the kingdom`s roads to women drivers."

"Not allowing women behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia is an immense barrier to their freedom of movement, and severely limits their ability to carry out everyday activities as they see fit, such as going to work or the supermarket, or picking up their children from school," said Philip Luther, Amnesty`s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Earlier this week, a group of women drove around the Saudi Embassy in Washington to protest the kingdom`s ban on female drivers. Similar convoys converged on Saudi diplomatic missions in other cities around the world.

Bureau Report