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Saudi Women Defy Driving Ban

WATCH: The detention of Manal al-Sharif after YouTube video of her driving in the city of Al-Khobar in May sparked outrage. (Reuters video)


Activists say a number of Saudi women have defied a ban on driving in a campaign sparked by a detention last month over an Internet video encouraging women to get behind the wheel.

Instead of calling for a mass protest, organizers of the "Women2Drive" online campaign urged women who have driving licenses obtained abroad to drive to complete their errands.

There is no written law in Saudi Arabia that specifically bans women from driving. But Saudi authorities enforce religious edicts by conservative Wahhabi clerics who say women should not be allowed to drive.

Modest Beginnings

The civil-disobedience organizers called for an ongoing, nonviolent campaign of resistance against the driving ban following the nine-day detention last month of a foreign-licensed Saudi woman who posted video of herself driving and encouraging other women to do the same. The woman, Manal al-Sharif, was reportedly involved in organizing the June 17 "Women2Drive" event via social-networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

Amnesty International has expressed support for the women's actions and criticized Saudi authorities for their treatment of Sharif.

The group says Sharif, a 32-year-old computer-security consultant, was "forced to sign a pledge that she would not drive again" before her release last month. It says that since then, "several women" have been arrested for driving and forced to sign similar pledges.

"Saudi Arabian authorities must not arrest licensed women drivers who choose to drive, and must grant them the same driving privileges as men," Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, is quoted as saying in the watchdog group's statement released to coincide with "Women2Drive."

"This is just one example of so many areas of life where women in Saudi Arabia have their human rights and their agency denied."

A Daily Nuisance

Muhammad al-Qahtani, who heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, told Reuters that "[w]e should have courage in this country at the highest levels."

"The political leadership in this country, the intellectuals, should fully resolve this issue so that women are not deprived of their natural rights," Qahtani said.

Um Abdullah, a Saudi woman who lives in Jedda, told the agency that the ban against women drivers makes it difficult for her to go about her daily routine.

"It would be a good thing for women to drive," Abdullah was quoted as saying. "Why? Because, as you know, we suffer now. For example, there are problems with taxis, problems with the driver, bringing foreign labor."

She said that "it's not a financial matter, but rather affects us psychologically."

Other Saudi women say the driving ban is not just an issue of convenience, but an issue of safety and security for women.

"If I can drive a car by myself," a woman told Reuters, "I do not need to have a male relative drive me, I can do my work, meet the needs of the household, such as driving children to their schools, and all the other things I need to do as part of daily life, without facing a possible problem from a taxi driver, from a foreign man, and this way I can be safe."

Some Saudi men, like Jedda resident Muhammad al-Nasir, said the driving ban against women affects their daily routine -- causing problems for them at work and forcing families to spend money on taxi drivers.

"As you know, for the employee to go to fetch his children from school or take his wife to the doctor, he has to get permission to leave work," Nasir told Reuters. "If my wife could drive I would be relieved of the responsibility of performing some of the day-to-day things such as school runs. I would also feel safer knowing my children were with my wife rather than with a driver."

Changing Culture

Muna al-Nasir, a woman from Jedda, said that even if the campaign is successful in getting the driving ban overturned, women will continue to face cultural pressures from Saudi men if they drive.

"If I were to stop because I had a flat tire, do you expect a young man would leave me alone? They would harass me," Nasir said. "Sometimes they harass me even when I'm with my father. So what would it be like if I were to be driving alone? There would be a lot of harassment."

The Saudi women's protest is inspired, in part, by popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that have been dubbed an "Arab awakening."

But it also borrows the nonviolent techniques of historic protest leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi -- that is, an active and declared refusal to obey laws or commands by authorities that the protesters consider unfair.

Indeed, nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns helped bring about changes from Gandhi's campaign for India's independence, the American civil-rights movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, the so-called Singing Revolution for the independence of Baltic countries from the Soviet Union, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

with agency reporting

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