Dubai: In the six months since Saudi activists renewed calls to defy the kingdom`s ban on female drivers, small numbers of women have gotten behind the wheel almost daily in what has become the country`s longest such campaign.
Organizers are calling on more women to join in on Saturday, when President Barack Obama visits Riyadh. The activists say their long-term goal is not just to win Saudi females the freedom to drive, but to clear a path for broader democratic reforms.
This week, 70 members of the US Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Obama urging him to raise critical human rights cases in Saudi Arabia and meet with female activists. So far the White House has only announced plans for Obama to meet King Abdullah and US Embassy staff.
Amnesty International urged the president to go even further and select a female Secret Service agent as his driver while in Saudi Arabia — a move that is highly unlikely, since Obama is coming to the kingdom for the first time since 2009 to repair strained relations between the US And its Arab ally.
Since Oct. 26, the first day of the renewed campaign, more than 100 women have gotten behind the wheel, said Eman al-Nafjan, an organiser.
So far, the government appears unwilling to launch a crackdown.
While it is still uncommon to see women driving in Saudi Arabia, they have been sending videos and photos of themselves behind the wheel to the campaign`s organizers, who then upload the footage to YouTube almost daily.
"It`s very hard to strategize in a place where political activism has no history," al-Nafjan said. "So our strategy is to keep marching on and to see if people join or not."
Naseema al-Sada has driven in the eastern region of Qatif. She said public attitudes have changed in the past six months, as evidenced by the way the campaign is openly talked about in the Saudi media.
"Women`s rights are no longer a taboo subject," she said. In an opinion piece this week published by the Saudi-based Arab News website, columnist Sabria Jawhar wrote that Saudi society either accepts or is indifferent to women getting behind the wheel now.
"If Oct. 26 has taught us anything, the driving ban is a government position. I have said many times in this column that I and most of the women I know want the right to drive whether we actually get behind the wheel or not," she wrote.