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Saudi Women Return to the Roads Defying Driving Ban

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At least two female Saudi activists took to the streets yesterday as part of an ongoing campaign to end the kingdom’s de facto ban on women driving. Saudi law prohibits women from being granted licenses, rather than banning women from driving. The effect, however, remains the same. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Originally termed the October 26th Campaign, activists planned several driving campaigns, the latest being yesterday (12.29.13). The aim was to persuade as many women as possible to drive in order to protest the ban. Saudi activists claim that more than 60 women drove in the original October 26th protest.

Yesterday activist Tamador AlYami was pulled over by a police car in the eastern port city of Jeddah only minutes after beginning her drive. She was in the car with another female activist who was filming the event. In the video she can be heard castigating the officer who had pulled her over, saying that she is not a criminal, and asking rhetorically him if he would have arrested a 15 year old boy who drove. The police officer remained polite and respectful throughout the encounter, but did call her husband to the scene, as well as reportedly making her sign a pledge not to drive again.

 

Saturday's continuation built on previous successes, but many challenges are faced by the activists. In the previous protest women’s activist and celebrity Loujain Hathoul, who flew back to Riyadh from Canada and had her father film her driving herself home from the airport. The Ministry of the Interior then summoned her father and forced him to sign a pledge not to allow her to drive again.Eman al-Nafjan, one of the prominent organizers of the campaign wrote on her blog “When we at the October 26th Campaign were looking for a celebrity to announce the campaign, we contacted people who we knew were pro-women driving. They all refused because they feared that they would lose followers, fans and might have trouble at their places of work or study.” Loujain Hathoul was one of the few who responded positively. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country, and opposition to women driving remains high.

One Saudi cleric, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, recently claimed that driving would damage women physically, claiming that it “automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards.” The official website of the campaign, was hacked on Saturday by someone who opposes women driving.

Women in Saudi Arabia remain cautious about taking part in demonstrations. Many activists received phone calls from the Interior Ministry, and fears of legal action prompted some activists to call off the October 26 drive, instead switching to an ‘open-ended campaign’. "Out of caution and respect for the interior ministry's warnings … we are asking women not to drive tomorrow and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign," activist Najla al-Hariri told AFP news agency.

One article in The Guardian urged Westerners to respect cultural differences, and not to impose feminism on a Saudi culture that neither wants nor needs it, claiming that many Saudi women as well as men support the ban. Nevertheless, many women still braved the streets undeterred, posting videos of themselves driving on YouTube, and sharing them through Twitter and other social media using the hashtags #Women2Drive and #Oct26Driving. A satirical video supporting the protest, entitled ‘No Woman, No Drive’ gained 11 million views.

The first campaigns were launched in 1990, but met with a far harsher response from the government, with the women’s passports being taken away and activists being arrested, fired from their jobs and imprisoned. In 2011, they tried again, emboldened by the advances of the Arab Spring. Campaign leader, Aziza Youssef gave an interview in 2011 in which she described not being able to drive as “Frustrating. Very frustrating. And demeaning at the same time.” She spoke about the humiliating experience of having to beg male relatives for a ride, and the cost of hiring drivers as being extremely restrictive and occasionally even dangerous, as women are sometimes kidnapped and raped by hired drivers who are not required to have background checks. A video of her joining yesterday’s protest was posted to youtube and shared on twitter.

The organizers of the protest have taken pains to separate the issue from that of religion. On their official website they assert that “Since there is no single Islamic text or jurisprudential edict that prohibits women driving, and that current justification for any reluctance stems from traditions and customs that have no relation to religion.” Videos uploaded to YouTube of activists driving show them quite clearly adhering to Saudi Islamic standards of female modesty, and none have made any public criticism of Islam as part of their campaign. They have been very careful to make no criticism of the monarchy. One of the activists, Tamador Al-Yami, referred to King Abdullah as “our beloved King” in her blog piece publicizing the campaign.

According to the Twitter feed of activist Hatoon al-Fassi, the next date for the continuation of the campaign has been set as the 24th of January, when women will once again take to the roads. Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy, and although there is an advisory Shura council, final decisions on all laws rest in the hands of 90 year old King Abdullah. In recent years, the King has allowed women to join the advisory council, and hopes remain high that soon women will be able to join their fathers, husbands, and brothers on the roads. The campaign is supported by organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

 

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.