Saudi women defy driving ban

Revolution behind the wheel

A file photo of Saudi women boarding a taxi in Riyadh. AP

Activists — inspired in part by the uprisings around the Arab world — have not appealed for mass protests in any specific sites. But they urged Saudi women to begin a growing mutiny against the driving restrictions that are supported by clerics backing austere interpretations of Islam and enforced by powerful morality squads.

Encouragement poured in via the Internet. “Take the wheel. Foot on the gas,” said one Twitter message on the main site women2Drive. Another urged: “Saudi women, start your engines!”

The defiance could bring difficult choices for the Western-backed Saudi authorities who have far have escaped major unrest from the Middle East turmoil. Officials could either launch a crackdown on the women and facing international pressure or giving way to the demands and angering traditional-minded clerics and other groups opposing reforms.

It also could encourage wider reform bids by Saudi women, who have not been allowed to vote and must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or take a job.

In the early hours of the protest, security forces mostly held back from challenging the women drivers, activists said. Some reported that women drove directly in front of police patrols.

“We want women from today to begin exercising their rights,” said Wajeha al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women’s rights activist who posted Internet clips of herself driving in 2008.

“Today on the roads is just the opening in a long campaign. We will not go back.”
The plan, she said, is for women who have obtained driving licences abroad to begin doing their daily errands and commuting on their own.

“We’ll keep it up until we get a royal decree removing the ban,” she said.

The campaign’s official start follows the 10-day detention last month of a 32-year-old woman, Manal al-Sherif, after she posted video of herself driving. She was released after reportedly signing a pledge that she would not drive again or speak publicly.

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