Saudis put the brakes on women driving protest
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Saudi authorities have warned that protesters or online backers of a planned October 26 protest against a ban on women’s driving face arrest. If many powerful Saudis believe women should be allowed to drive, why is the issue so contentious?
In October 2005, shortly after he came to power, Saudi King Abdullah told a US TV station that he believed “the day will come when women will drive”.
But in the ultraconservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that day has not yet come.
Eight years after Abdullah’s interview with ABC News, Saudi women activists picked a date to publicly exercise their right to drive on Saturday, October 26.
But on the eve of a planned protest against the country’s informal ban on women’s driving, the interior ministry stepped up warnings to all Saudi citizens participating – or planning to participate in – the campaign.
Saudi interior ministry spokesman, Turki al-Faisal, told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat on Friday that even online support for the campaign could bring arrest. The paper quoted Faisal as saying cyber-dissident laws “will be applied against violators'' while other measures will be taken against “those who gather to support'' the planned protest.
On Friday afternoon, the main campaign website, www.oct26driving.org, had been blocked and replaced by the message, “Drop the leadership of Saudi women”.
On Twitter, the hashtag, #women2drive, featured a discussion on whether Saturday’s campaign would take place, with some predicting it was “too dangerous” while others – primarily activists based outside Saudi Arabia – expressed support for the campaign.
By Friday night, campaign organisers said they had dropped plans to hold a “drive-in” protest and were asking women “to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign,” activist Najla al-Hariri told the AFP.
Since the 1990 Gulf War – when US servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia drove freely through military bases – the kingdom has had an informal ban on women driving, which is enforced by powerful clerics.
Saudi women’s rights activists launched the Women2Drive campaign in 2011, just as mass uprisings were shaking the Arab world, with men and women agitating for change on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa.
But change is slow to come in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism – an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran – is the dominant faith.
Saudi Arabia, ‘the world’s largest women’s prison’
Saudi women face pervasive, systematic oppression in a country that has been described as “the world’s largest women’s prison,” according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
While the right to drive is not the most serious discrimination confronting Saudi women, it has turned into a high profile issue that has galvanized activists for more than three decades and periodically put Saudi royal family members on the spot during media interviews and at international forums.
In a 2010 interview with FRANCE 24, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal, granddaughter of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and daughter of former King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, acknowledged that the ban gives the country bad publicity.
“This has always been an issue because everybody in the world keeps asking us about it,” said Princess Faisal. “The government’s position is not against women’s driving but they have left it to the people to decide whether they accept it or not,” she said before adding, “Personally, I think that a woman should be allowed to drive.”
A ‘Faustian bargain’ between king and clerics
Experts and ordinary Saudis have long known that many members of the royal family do not personally support the ban.
Since he came to power in August 2005, King Abdullah – who is considered a moderate by Saudi standards - has brought in a number of advances on women’s rights.
Saudi women are now able to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, the King has appointed 30 females in the 150-member advisory Shura Council, and in September, the kingdom passed a law criminalising domestic violence for the first time.
But the Saudi royal family has a complicated relationship with the conservative clerical establishment, which dates back to the founding of the country in the 1930s, when founding father Ibn Saud used Wahhabi religious fighters to conquer his kingdom and struck a deal with the clergy that endures to this day.
For more than eight decades, Ibn Saud’s descendants have been unable and unwilling to confront what some experts have called the al Saud’s Faustian bargain with the Wahhabi clerical establishment.
Driving ‘risks damaging women’s ovaries’
The campaign to lift the women’s driving ban appears to be the latest victim of this power bargain.
Last month, conservative cleric Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan made international headlines with his bizarre claim that women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems.
Since the Women2Drive campaign was launched, a number of Saudi women have recorded videos of themselves driving, which have been posted on the web.
None of the dozens of video clips feature any brushes with the dreaded mutaween, or religious police. In some clips, male drivers on the street flash a thumbs-up sign, indicating a measure of public support for lifting the ban.
Saudi women’s rights advocates note that the ban imposes financial pressures on many middle class families.
In her interview with FRANCE 24, al-Faisal, the Saudi princess, noted that, “there are more and more women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia and there are many families living on the pay that these women bring in,” she said, noting that an average Saudi woman has to spend “quite a percentage of her salary to hire either a driver or a limousine service…or the husbands or the fathers or the brothers lose a lot of man-hours just to transport their female relatives.”
In September 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). More than a decade later, Saudi women’s rights activists believe it’s time the government implemented the convention, which requires signatories to treat women equally and not enforce discriminatory policies.