RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — More than 60 women across Saudi Arabia claimed they drove cars Saturday in defiance of a ban keeping them from getting behind the wheel, but they faced little protest from police in their push to ease restrictions on women in the kingdom.
The campaign’s message is that driving should be a woman’s choice. The struggle is rooted in the kingdom’s hard-line interpretation of Islam, known as Wahabbism, with critics warning that allowing women to drive could unravel the fabric of Saudi society.
Though no laws ban women from driving in Saudi Arabia, authorities do not issue them licenses. Women who drove Saturday had driver’s licenses from abroad, activists said.
Activist Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University, and another activist said that protest organizers received 13 videos and about 50 phone messages from women, showing themselves driving or claiming they had driven. Youssef said they have no way to verify the messages.
May al-Sawyan, a 32-year-old mother of two and an economic researcher, said she drove from her home in the capital, Riyadh, to the grocery store and back. Activists uploaded to the campaign’s YouTube account a four-minute video showing Sawyan behind the wheel.
She was prepared to be jailed, Sawyan said, if she had been caught by authorities. She said she was far enough from a police car that she was not spotted.
“I just took a small loop,” she said. “I didn’t drive for a long way, but it was fine.”
Sawyan’s husband and family waited at home and called her nervously when she arrived at the store, she said. A local female television reporter accompanied her in the car. Neither had a male relative in the vehicle, which defies the country’s norm requiring women to be accompanied in public by a male family member.
“I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me,” Sawyan said.
It is unclear whether police ignored women who were driving or simply did not see them. An Associated Press journalist in Riyadh said there were no roadblocks or checkpoints set up to watch for female drivers. He said he saw only a few law enforcement vehicles on the road.
A security official said authorities did not arrest or fine any female drivers Saturday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Ahead of the protest, authorities offered mixed messages, perhaps being cautious not to push too hard against the kingdom’s religious establishment. Hard-line clerics say that allowing women to drive will lead to “licentiousness.” A prominent cleric caused a stir when he said medical studies show that driving a car harms a woman’s ovaries.
The ministry that oversees the police warned that violators who “disturb public peace” would be dealt with forcefully. The statement catered to conservatives who saw it as directed at female drivers, but it was also interpreted by reformers as a warning not to harass women drivers.
“My analysis is that government is doing all this to protect ladies from the harassers,” said Youssef, the activist and professor.
Saturday’s protest is a stark contrast to the kingdom’s first major driving protest, in 1990, when 50 women were arrested. They had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs.
In June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving.
King Abdullah has gradually introduced changes since then, such as allowing women to sit on the national advisory council and permitting them to vote and run in municipal elections.
But the stringent male guardian system has been left untouched. It requires women to obtain permission from a male relative to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo surgery in some cases.
In response to women who complain about not having male relatives to drive them places or money to spend on a driver, many Saudi clerics say that instead of seeking a driver’s licence, the women should call for better public transportation.