Dozens of Saudi Arabian women participate in protest against country’s ban on women drivers
Activists say at least 60 joined call to allow female drivers – making it country’s biggest ever demonstration against the ban
More than 60 Saudi women got behind the wheels of their cars as part of a protest against a ban on women driving in the kingdom, activists have claimed.
A Saudi professor and campaigner, Aziza Youssef, said the activists have received 13 videos and another 50 phone messages from women showing or claiming they had driven, the Associated Press reported.
She said it had not been not possible to verify all of the messages. But, if the numbers are accurate, they would make Saturday’s demonstration the biggest the country has ever seen against the ban.
Despite warnings by police and ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia, there have been no reports from those who claimed to have driven of being arrested or ticketed by police.
A video clip of a protest by May al-Sawyan, a 32-year-old economics researcher and mother of two, was uploaded on the YouTube channel of the October 26 driving for women group, along with several other videos of women purportedly driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh, al-Ahsa and Jeddah. It was not possible to verify when they were filmed.
“I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me,” she told AP. “There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine. They are not used to seeing women driving here.”
Sawyan said she had obtained a driver’s licence from abroad. She said she was prepared for the risk of detention if caught but added that she was far enough from a police car that she was not spotted.
“I just took a small loop. I didn’t drive for a long way, but it was fine. I went to the grocery store,” she said.
Her husband and family waited at home and called her when she arrived at the shop to check on her, she said. She drove with a local female television reporter in the car. They were both without male relatives in the vehicle.
“I know of several women who drove earlier today. We will post videos later,” one of the campaign organisers told Reuters.
The Associated Press reported that a security official said authorities did not arrest or fine any female drivers on Saturday.
Youssef said she and four other prominent women activists received phone calls this week from a top official with close links to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, warning them not to drive on Saturday, the day the campaign set for women’s driving.
She also said that “two suspicious cars” have been following her everywhere all day. “I don’t know from which party they are from. They are not in a government car,” she said.
Activists said they have 16,600 signatures on an online petition calling for change. Efforts to publicise the issue have been described as the best-organised social campaign ever seen in Saudi Arabia, where Twitter has millions of users and is used to circulate information about the monarchy and official corruption.
Previous attempts to promote change fizzled out in arrests for public order offences and demoralisation. In 2011, the activist Manal al-Sharif made a YouTube video urging women to drive their own cars, and was imprisoned for more than a week. But the signs are far more positive now.
Three female members of the shura (advisory) council – among 30 appointed by the 90-year-old King Abdullah – recommended this month that the ban be rescinded, though no debate has yet taken place.
Latifa al-Shaalan, Haya al-Mani and Muna al-Mashit urged the council to “recognise the rights of women to drive a car in accordance with the principles of sharia and traffic laws”.
The three – praised by supporters for “stirring the stagnant water” – framed their argument with careful references to religious edicts banning women from being in the company of an unrelated male driver. Other ideas designed to reassure critics are appointing female traffic police and driving instructors. Cost is another big factor, with families having to employ chauffeurs, as is convenience.
Though no specific Saudi law bans women from driving, women are not issued licenses. They mostly rely on drivers or male relatives to move around.
Powerful clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the monarchy enforce the driving ban, warning that breaking it will spread “licentiousness.” A prominent cleric caused a stir when he said last month that medical studies show that driving a car harms a woman’s ovaries.
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