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A social media campaign to get Saudi women driving finds support but also mockery

A Saudi woman sits behind the wheel of a car in Riyadh. (EPA\)

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women cannot legally drive. Over the past few days, the hashtag  (#IwilldrivemycarJune15th") has trended across social media, scoring tens of thousands of mentions on Twitter and other platforms, according to BBC Arabic.

The hashtag has served both as an opportunity for Saudi women to express their will to drive, whatever the norms of their country, and for Saudi men to offer their support. The Independent points to one tweet that suggests that the Saudi government should either allow women to drive or "provide special discounted transportation for women."

However, the hashtag has also been used by those who view women driving as an affront to Saudi Arabia's conservative values. One Twitter user posted a photograph of a toy car in an apparent bid to mock the hashtag.

Some others tweeted images and videos that appeared to suggest that women would be bad drivers or that their place was in the home.

Meanwhile, many users pointed to a Twitter poll conducted by MBC, a pan-Arab broadcaster, on May 8. The poll had asked followers whether they agreed that women in Saudi Arabia should be allowed to drive. However, after the survey found that about 78 percent of the respondents were against Saudi women driving, MBC deleted the poll, sparking widespread criticism online of the Dubai-based media organization.

Online campaigns to get Saudi women to drive go back to at least 2011, when a Facebook group was set up that called on women to drive on June 17. After the activist who set up the group, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested by Saudi authorities, dozens of Saudi women took to the road in defiance, often filming and taking photographs of themselves behind the wheel. There have been a number of similar campaigns since.

Generally, most of these women find themselves able to drive during these events without repercussion, but one woman — Shaima Jastaniah — was sentenced to 10 lashes after driving in 2011. Her punishment was repeatedly delayed and later canceled, however. Most of those women driving use a legal gray area to help justify their actions. Women driving isn't illegal in Saudi Arabia, but women cannot get licenses. (In some rural areas, they drive regularly without them.) Activists say that most of those who take part in the driving protests have received a foreign driving license.

Saudi royals have long suggested that they would like to allow women to drive. In 2005, the late Saudi King Abdullah told Barbara Walters that he believed "the day will come when women drive." Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful young prince third in line to the throne, recently told Bloomberg News that he believed "women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain," seen as tacit approval for driving rights for women.

However, while the kingdom has in recent years pushed for women to become more involved in many facets of Saudi society, including politics, business and education, driving remains a bone of contention with the country's powerful religious establishment. “The community is not convinced about women driving," Mohammed told a reporter last month, suggesting that the issue wasn't so much about religion but what the broader Saudi society will allow.

Whether Saudi society would support female drivers seems to depend on whom you ask — while the MBC Twitter poll cannot be considered representative, it does suggest that at least a vocal minority opposes women driving. A more rigorous approach was taken by Gallup, which in 2007 found that 66 percent of women and 55 percent of men said women should be allowed to drive a car alone. However, a poll conducted last year by the International Republican Institute found that 52 percent of women thought that allowing them to drive would have little influence on their role in Saudi public life.

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