SAUDI ARABIA. Women in Saudi Arabia got behind the steering wheels of their cars 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, told Bloomberg today 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 an online initiative that led to the detention of one of the campaign’s activists, Manal al-Sharif.
A group of Saudi men and women, including al-Sharif, began organizing the campaign in May through the Facebook and Twitter social-networking websites. The organizers insisted their coordinated plan wasn’t a protest. Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s biggest oil reserves, has avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten the governments of Libya, Yemen and Syria.
“Saudi Arabian authorities must stop treating women as second-class citizens and open the kingdom’s roads to women drivers,” Amnesty International said yesterday in a statement. “Saudi Arabian authorities must not arrest licensed women who choose to drive, and must grant them the same driving privileges as men.”
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.
“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.
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.
Al-Qahtani said that when she was driving in Riyadh today she saw five police cars on the road and one even passed the blue Hummer she was driving.
“I told her about possible dangers,” Al-Qahtani’s husband Mohammed 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.”
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on November 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
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.
King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure that regional turmoil remains outside his borders, pledging almost US$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% of the workforce.
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.”