Saudi women defy driving ban

June 17, 2011

At least 29 women in Saudi Arabia drove their cars Friday, after Internet campaigns inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world urged them to flout the country’s de facto ban on female drivers.

At least one of the women is believed to have been arrested in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital and one of its most conservative cities, online activists said. She was later released.

Maha al-Qahtani, 39, drove for 35 minutes in Riyadh with her husband in the passenger seat. “This is my basic right. It should not be a big deal. There is nothing wrong or illegal about driving,” Qahtani, a state employee, said. “The decision to ban driving proves how backward the regime is.”

In the past month, Saudi women have posted on the Internet videos and images of themselves driving.

On Friday, a woman covered in black abaya and face veil, posted a video of herself on YouTube driving to the grocery store in Riyadh. Her iPhone showed the time as 12:40, June 17. She wrote: “All I want is to do my errands or go to work whenever I want.”

Online activists had called on women to drive their cars Friday but not to demonstrate, amid fears of a crackdown in a country where protests are outlawed. Activists say thousands joined online campaigns to allow women drivers, but few actually drove Friday, fearing reprisals.

Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old IT consultant who last month set up a Facebook campaign called women2drive, was arrested May 21.

She was released the following day, only to be detained again after she posted videos of herself driving in al-Khobar, in the country’s Eastern Province. She was later re-released after spending a week in prison accused of “inciting public opinion and harming the country’s reputation.”

Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law and tribal traditions, is the only country that restricts driving by women. There is no law expressly forbidding female drivers, but women cannot get a locally issued driving licence, which is required to operate a vehicle in cities. Women in rural and desert areas drive pickup trucks but cannot drive in urban areas.

The royal family, including King Abdullah, who is considered an advocate of women’s rights, has said there is no religious reason for the ban but that the conservative society is not ready for such change.

The online campaign has already prompted a conservative backlash. An anti-driving group on Facebook has called on “real men” to beat up women who drive. On Twitter, activists were called “westernised whores.”

— Financial Times

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