Saudi women defy driving ban by taking to the wheel
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A month after Manal al-Sherif was arrested and imprisoned for filming herself driving, a small group of Saudi women took to the roads on Friday to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers.
Several Saudi women got behind the wheel on Friday in a “Suffragette-level” protest against rules that ban them from driving cars in the conservative, male-dominated country.
A Facebook campaign page titled “Women2Drive”, as well as the reactions from thousands of Twitter users, have helped push this small act of civil disobedience onto the international stage.
The campaign was inspired by the arrest last month of 32-year-old Manal al-Sherif, who posted a video of herself driving on YouTube.
On Friday there were reports of “several” women driving. But in an ultraconservative country where such behaviour is virtually unknown, it was still a significant act of defiance – even if all the reports were of women driving with a male relative. Saudi women are required by law to be accompanied by a male relative when they venture out.
Microblogging site Twitter was flooded with messages of support on Friday and triumphant comments on those staging these acts of defiance.
Times of London columnist Janice Turner tweeted: “Today, women in Saudi will challenge the driving ban, risking arrest, loss of jobs & children. This [is] Suffragette-level bravery.”
Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtan, a Saudi rights activist, said he had been driven by his wife Maha through the streets of Riyadh.
“My wife, Maha, and I have just come from a 45-minute drive, she was the driver through Riyadh's streets,” he tweeted, adding later that she “has taken her necessary belongings, ready to go to prison without fear!”
Stopping the 'spread of vice'
Other reports said that women had driven in front of police patrols and that some men had dressed up in the traditional black abaya – the full-body covering worn by Saudi women – to confuse the authorities.
These acts of civil disobedience are partly inspired by the “Arab Spring” revolts. And while on a much smaller scale than some uprisings across the region, they are likely to put pressure on the Saudi government, which will have to decide if it will adopt a more liberal approach to driving and risk the ire of the country’s powerful clerics.
This nascent defiance might also encourage women to seek wider freedoms in a country where they need permission from a male guardian in order to travel or to take up a job.
Saudi Arabia has no written law banning women from taking the wheel. But Saudi citizens are obliged to have a domestic driver's license for driving in the country – and these are not issued to women.
The ban on granting women licences comes from fatwas (religious edicts) issued by senior Muslim clerics. These clerics say that stopping women from driving prevents the spread of vice because women cannot leave their homes to interact with strange men.
Families often hire live-in drivers so that women do not have to rely constantly on their male relatives.
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