International

Saudi women refuse to put brakes on driving ban protest

Will government threats deter women from participating in campaign?

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia. A conservative Saudi cleric has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems.
Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

By Massoud Hayoun and Lisa De Bode

A petition in support of a Saudi woman’s right to drive has attracted more than 16,500 names in advance of a weekend campaign in which female motorists are expected to defy the kingdom’s rulers and take to the roads. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from operating a vehicle.

An estimated 100 women have already broken the ban in the run-up to the action sponsored by the Oct. 26 Women's Driving Campaign, activists say. Some have uploaded videos of themselves driving cars in cities across the kingdom. More are expected to join Saturday, but alleged threats by government officials compelled many activists to say the date is "symbolic" and opt for a continuous campaign instead.

But Saudi women aren't easily deterred.

"I'm scared, of course I am. It's not easy. But it's not the fear that's going to stop me," said Madeha al-Ajroush, a veteran Saudi women’s rights activist who told Al Jazeera she drove around Riyadh on Oct. 10 and plans to head out again this weekend. 

On Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour al-Turki warned that women drivers would be prosecuted. He told the AFP news agency, "It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support (of this cause)."

"The Kingdom's laws prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition," the ministry's statement said.

On Friday, the petition was removed from the Internet in what appeared to be the result of a deliberate hack of the website. "Drop the leadership of Saudi women," read a message, which was changed throughout the day. But one member involved with the campaign told Al Jazeera that government officials ordered its server shut.

Activists deny they are breaking the law. There is no official legislation that prevents women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but they are prohibited from obtaining a license. In some areas, such as the compound of the oil giant Saudi Aramco in the eastern city of Dammam and remote Bedouin areas, women already drive.

"The whole campaign is not about protesting in a revolutionary way," al-Ajroush said. "It isn't about gathering. It's about women getting in their car and driving."

Moreover, activists note that the campaign is not centrally organized, making it harder for the authorities to target individuals involved.

Manal al-Sharif, a prominent women’s rights activist who spearheaded a driving campaign two years ago and was detained for nine days after posting a video of herself driving a car, told Al Jazeera that by not having a single leader, the campaign will prevent authorities and society at large from harassing one person.

"Having a leader diverts the attention from the movement itself. That person becomes a target for the government, people," she said. After the campaign, al-Sharif said she lost her job and custody of her son. She now lives in Dubai.

Repeating history

The right to drive has become a recurrent focal point for Saudi women campaigning for equal opportunities. The kingdom took a repressive bent in 1979 when, as a result of the Iranian revolution and the subsequent seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, it enforced a more conservative stance.

In addition to being prohibited from driving, Saudi women need permission from a male guardian to travel, work or marry. They are also expected to wear a headscarf and an abaya, a black cloak covering the body.

In 1990, al-Ajroush joined a collective of 47 women who drove in Riyadh. As a result of that action she lost her job, she said. In 2011 she took to the roads again. She lost a job again, this time in Qassim, one of the kingdom's most conservative regions, where she worked as a consultant.

Despite the setbacks, al-Ajroush is determined not to give up.

"We waited for 23 years, and we never thought it would be that long," she said. "We're the only nation in the world (where women can't drive). Why is it taking that long?"

Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera he is pessimistic about the chance of change in the kingdom.

"The king (Abdullah) in many ways missed his chance," he said. "In the era of the Arab Spring everything has changed, and any concession … to people's demands is magnified in the rulers' minds as a dangerous precedent."

But in a country with the fastest-growing Twitter market in the world, social media offer a glimmer of hope.

"The world is talking about us on social media," al-Ajroush said. "My Facebook (page) is used for one reason, for women's issues, particularly the driving. When I was detained in 2011, before I got to the police station, I got several phone calls. They knew about me via Twitter."

An online media campaign has succeeded in attracting international attention to the Saudi women's plea. The "Honk for Saudi Women" movement urged U.S. supporters to post YouTube videos of themselves driving and honking car horns. Several activists staged drive-bys in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

"It was great. It was very helpful," al-Sharif said. An official at the targeted embassy hung up the phone when asked by Al Jazeera about the driving campaign.

Aside from the grassroots action, three female legislators have taken up the issue at the Shura Council, the highest advisory organ to the king. Campaigners argue that the kingdom's financially strained middle class cannot continue to afford family drivers. There are also complaints that female passengers are often victims of harassment by hired drivers.

"It took us two months to prepare the study (on women's driving) which helped us come up with the recommendations on different issues which are usually supported with brief studies," Latifah al-Shalan, a Shura Council member, was reported in the Saudi Gazette as saying about her study in an interview with a Saudi news agency.

With the exception of two women who were briefly stopped by police, authorities have so far not intervened to stop any of the female drivers. But on Saturday, when many more are expected to challenge authorities from behind the wheel, that approach looks set to be tested.

With wire services

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