Women step up challenge to Saudi Arabia drive ban

A Riyadh woman risks jail by taking part in yesterday's protest drive, but this time the government kept its foot off the brakes. Picture: AP
A Riyadh woman risks jail by taking part in yesterday's protest drive, but this time the government kept its foot off the brakes. Picture: AP
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Saudi activists said more than 60 women got behind the wheel yesterday in a rare show of defiance against a ban on ­female driving in the ultra-conservative Arab kingdom.

Saudi professor and campaigner Aziza Youssef said the group has received 13 videos and another 50 phone messages from women showing or claiming they had driven.

If the numbers are accurate, this year’s campaign is the most successful effort yet by Saudi women demanding the right to drive.

Youssef said they have not received any reports of arrests or women being ticketed by police. A security official said that authorities did not arrest or fine any female drivers ­yesterday.

However, there have been roadblocks along the way.

Youssef said she and four other prominent women activists received telephone calls this week from a top official with links to interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef warning them not to drive ­yesterday.

She also said that “two suspicious cars” had been following her all day. “I don’t know which party they are from. They are not in a government car,” she said.

Though no Saudi law bans women from driving, women are not issued licences. They mostly rely on drivers or male relatives to move around.

Clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the monarchy enforce the driving ban, warning that breaking it will spread “licentiousness”. A prominent cleric claimed last month that medical studies show that driving harms a woman’s ovaries.

The kingdom’s first major driving protest came in 1990 when some 50 women drove their cars. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. In June 2011, 40 women got behind the wheel in several cities in a protest sparked by the arrest of a woman who posted a video of herself driving.

In the run-up to yesterday’s driving campaign this year, interior ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki warned that anyone disturbing public order would be dealt with forcefully, the same language used in charges levelled against a ­female driver in 2011.

But the atmosphere appeared more tolerant this time round and state newspapers for the first time have run almost daily commentary on the issue.

Reforms made by the monarchy since 2011 may have readied the deeply conservative nation for change. These include allowing women to sit on the national advisory council and a decision by King Abdullah to permit women to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015.

May al-Sawyan, a 32-year-old mother-of-two and an economics researcher, said she drove from her home in Riyadh to the grocery shop and back. Like other women defying the ban, Sawyan said she has obtained a licence from abroad.

“I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me,” she said. “There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine … They are not used to seeing women driving here.”