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Women drivers plan mass protest

2013-10-25 10:43


THE RIGHT TO DRIVE: Saudi women will take to the streets and drive on October 26 2013 as part of a protest against the nation’s ban on females behind the wheel. Image: AFP

It's been two years since women in Saudi Arabia protested against a female driving ban and on October 26, Saudi women will once take to the kingdom's roads and this time they have garnered massive support!

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - It's been a little more than two years since women in Saudi Arabia campaigned for the right to drive a motor vehicle but activists are now trying again.

They hope reforms made by the monarchy since have readied the deeply male-conservative nation for change.

The reforms made by King Abdullah in recent years have been cautious, showing his wariness of pushing too hard against influential conservatives but given the overwhelming restrictions on women in the kingdom, where the strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is effectively the law of the land, even tiny openings have had a resounding effect.


Perhaps one sign of the impact of the changes is the backlash by conservatives against a driving campaign planned for Saturday, October 26 2013.

Around 150 clerics rallied outside one of the king's palaces in October 2013, some accusing Abdullah's top ally the USA of being behind calls to allow women to drive. A prominent cleric caused a stir when he said last month that medical studies showed driving harmed a woman's ovaries.

Those opposed to the campaign have also used social media to attack activists or have urged people to harass female drivers.

The government has given mixed signals about how it will deal with the campaign, illustrated by a statement sent by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police. It warned against marches or gatherings under the pretext of the driving campaign.

The Interior Ministry said "disturbing public peace" would be dealt with firmly but activists have chosen to interpret this to mean that police will crack down on men who try to attack or harass women drivers.

Hatoon al-Fassi, a professor of women's history at King Saud University in Riyadh, pointed out that women had made it clear that they would not hold gatherings; they will simply drive in a show of defiance of the ban, perhaps on the pretext of running errands.


Al-Fassi said: "We are feeling a more positive environment. There is a general atmosphere of acceptance. The public is positive and the reactions on social media are beautiful."

Still, the statement's language also caters to conservatives because it harks back to charges of "violating public order" made against a female driver arrested in 2011.

In a sign that the authorities do not want the driving campaign to grow too bold, police have privately told the campaigners not to speak to the news media.

The driving ban, imposed because clerics warn that "licentiousness" will spread if women drive, is unique in the world but it's hardly the restriction. Genders are strictly segregated, women must wear a headscarf and loose black robes in public. Guardianship laws require women to obtain permission from a male relative, usually husband or father but in their absence, a brother or son, to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.

The first major driving protest was held in 1995 and met with heavy response. Some 50 women who drove their cars were jailed, their passports confiscated and they lost their jobs.

In June 2011 about 40 women got behind the wheel and drove in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. Individual women continued to flout the ban, one was arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes but the king overturned the sentence.


Campaigners hope to bring out bigger numbers on October 26 2013. They claim to have 16 000 signatures on a petition of support, 25% more than in 2011. This time, they say, they understand the laws better and have the full support of male relatives. They argue that public attitudes are changing.

They have posted online videos of themselves driving, some showing passing male drivers giving them a thumbs-up. State newspapers have published articles and opinion pieces almost daily on the debate, something impossible only a few years ago.

Al-Fassi, who also writes for the state-run daily Al-Riyadh, said that two years earlier she was barred from publishing an article that mentioned women's driving and had to change the wording. Al-Fassi said: "This time I wrote a long article and not a single word was changed. It is unprecedented."

A string of "firsts" since the 2011 driving campaign have cracked open the door:

• Women were granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections.
• 30 women were given seats on the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king and government.
• The largest university in the world for girls opened a few years after the opening of the kingdom's first major mixed-gender university.
• Two Saudi female athletes, one a judo competitor, competed in the 2012 Olympics.
• Four women were licensed to work as lawyers.
• A law criminalising domestic abuse was introduced, with a state-backed anti-abuse advertising campaign.

Still, even the changes have their limits...


It is a crime to abuse a woman but unclear which agency will investigate. It’s difficult to file a police report without a male guardian, who could be the abuser, and female lawyers will likely face male judges who oppose their presence in court. There are no physical education classes for girls in public schools as sports centres are predominantly for men.

The municipal seats for which women can now vote for are largely toothless. The Shura Council, still male-dominated, has so far ignored a request by three female members to discuss the issue of women drivers and the guardianship system is still firmly in place.

Complicating matters is the vague nature of Saudi law. For example, no law directly bans women from driving but Wahhabi clerics have issued edicts against it, which police enforce. They are backed up by the courts whose judges are mostly clerics.

Karen Elliott House, author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines”, said: "Clearly, the legal system is on the side of the men."

Earlier in 2013 a court sentenced rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar and another Saudi woman to 10 months in prison and a two-year travel ban because they helped a Canadian mother whose Saudi husband was allegedly abusive.

The pair were charged with "supporting a wife without her husband's knowledge, undermining the marriage" according to Equality Now, a group advocating women's rights.

Samia el-Moslimany helped found a support network called the Waneesa Sisterhood to help women with abusive or neglectful husbands but says there is little her group can do about the justice system without public pressure. The Saudi culture still largely looks down on women who go public with their cases.

El-Moslimany said: "It is the stumbling block to everything, this whole warped honour-thing that society has."

Read more on:    saudi arabia  |  muslim  |  driving ban  |  women  |  islam  |  cars

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