Bloomberg News

Saudi Arabian Women Use Their Cars to Call for End to Ban

June 17, 2011

(Updates with women driving in other cities in third paragraph, woman’s comment starting in fifth, group in final.)

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheels of their cars today to challenge the world’s only ban on driving by females.

“It’s my right to drive. I didn’t do anything wrong,” Maha al-Qahtani, 37, said in a phone interview. “I should have the choice to drive or not to drive.” She said she drove for less than an hour in Riyadh with her husband, Mohammed al- Qahtani, a professor of economics and human-rights activist, and had a change of clothes in case the police detained her.

The plan to get women with international driving licenses out in their cars followed a campaign that led to the detention of one of the activists, Manal al-Sharif. A group of Saudi men and women, including al-Sharif, began the campaign in May on the Facebook and Twitter social-networking websites. They insisted their plan wasn’t a protest. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year.

Several women wrote on Twitter to describe driving in the cities of Mecca and Jeddah. Two Saudi women used YouTube to post videos of themselves driving in the kingdom. There were no immediate reports of arrests.

“I was so happy when I saw the online postings,” said Najla Barasain, 25, by phone from Riyadh, the capital. “Yesterday, I didn’t think anyone would actually drive.”

Barasain said it’s “good that even some men are supporting the move.” She said she’s been trying to persuade her father to allow her to drive. “If he agrees, then I will drive later today when it gets dark,” she said. “If he doesn’t, I won’t. I don’t want to do something he is not convinced of.”

Learned in U.S.

Al-Qahtani, who, like Barasain, learned to drive while living in the U.S., said that when she was driving in Riyadh she saw five police cars and one even passed her blue Hummer.

“I told her about possible dangers,” her husband said. “But I also told her she could advance the cause. I told her if she wants to have a car and to drive, she should do it.”

Al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, was arrested last month in the city of al-Khobar, in Eastern Province, after she drove on more than one occasion and urged other women to drive in a video she posted on YouTube, according to Amnesty International. The human-rights organization said al- Sharif was forced to sign a pledge that she wouldn’t drive again and was released 10 days later.

Freed After Pledges

“Since her arrest, several women have reportedly been arrested on various occasions for driving in different parts of Saudi Arabia and released shortly after signing pledges not to drive in future,” Amnesty International said yesterday in a statement. “Saudi Arabian authorities must stop treating women as second-class citizens and open the kingdom’s roads to women drivers.”

Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. A woman isn’t allowed to apply for a driver’s license, though some drive when they’re in desert areas away from cities. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only balloting the kingdom allows.

The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Female Soldiers

The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of the international media to ensure their story would reach the world and lessen the repercussions.

The women were briefly detained and lost their jobs for at least two years.

Some Saudis say the driving ban prevents the spread of vice. They say if women were allowed to drive, they would be free to leave home alone whenever they like. The women would also break the strict rules that limit the mixing of genders by interacting with male mechanics if their cars break down or with attendants at gas stations.

King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure that regional turmoil remains outside his borders, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. He also has promised to improve the status of women. He opened the country’s first coeducational university in 2009 and appointed its first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year. He has said he will provide more access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.

Changes in 2008

A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the labor law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.”

The Facebook page for the campaign al-Sharif helped to organize, called “I will drive starting June 17,” is no longer found on the website. Amnesty International said today’s initiative was led by organizers from “Women2Drive.”

“June 17 is the starting date for seeing women driving their cars,” Women2Drive said on the group’s Facebook page. “We want to see women drive their cars to run errands every hour and every day.”

--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London, Editors: Heather Langan, Andrew Atkinson, Karl Maier, Phil Sanders, Ben Holland

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Manama at dabunasr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.


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