Friday, June 17, 2011
Driving campaign for Saudi women challenges custom
From Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
CNN) -- Saudi women have been encouraged to challenge the status quo and get behind the wheel Friday.
The initiative is called "Women2Drive," a campaign demanding the right for women to drive and travel freely in Saudi Arabia.
Though there are no traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, religious edicts are often interpreted as a ban against female drivers. One female motorist spent more than a week in custody in May, supporters said.
The day was expected to be a test of wills, and authority, between police and the campaign, which has been publicized by Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
A Riyadh man who went out to document what would be an unusual scene in Saudi Arabia said the streets were typically empty for a Friday morning, but that there were many fewer police officers than in March -- when online organizers had called for mass demonstrations.
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"I'm thinking that the government is turning sideways," said the man, Ahmad Alafaliq. "They don't want to see it, they don't want to deal with it."
A Saudi woman told CNN her mother drove her and her sisters down Riyadh's main street on Thursday.
The woman, who asked not to be named because she was worried about harassment and possible reprisals, said no one bothered them.
"This is important for women here -- this is one of our rights," she said.
Authorities stopped Manal al Sharif, 32, for driving a car May 21 and detained her the next day. She said she was forced to sign a form promising not to drive again and spent a week in jail.
Al Sharif has not been charged, but the case remains open and she may be called back, according to human rights activist Waleed Abu Alkhair.
In an interview with CNN before her detention, al Sharif said she was determined to speak out.
"We have a saying," she said. "The rain starts with a single drop. This is a symbolic thing."
A Facebook page called "Women2Drive 17th June," includes a banner that reads "We are all Manal Sharif," and a quote from King Abdullah stating that "the day will come when women will be able to drive."
The same page offers some guidelines on participating in the driving movement, such as asking women to keep wearing a hijab, or head scarf; not gathering in the streets; waiving the Saudi flag to show their patriotism; having a male present in the vehicle and driving within Riyadh's city limits.
Hundreds of women joined the campaign to begin driving Friday. Some women with international licenses, such as al Sharif, began driving earlier.
"It's very important to drive because it is a basic right," said Nadya Khalife, a Human Rights Watch women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa. "The freedom of movement is a basic right. Saudi Arabia is the only country that bans driving for women."
Khalife said what separates this campaign from other efforts to get women to drive is the degree to which it has relied on social media.
Khalife said the deterrents to women getting behind the wheel have been "a whole mix of things."
"They're up against society as a whole," Khalife said. "Some women may even face harassment or pressure from their families. Some women have clearly been in support, but others are saying they don't want to 'shame.'"
Khalife noted that some men have been supportive of their daughters, wives and sisters taking part in the driving campaign.
Alkhair, speaking Thursday from London, said he encouraged his wife to drive in Jeddah on Friday.
"I think after what the police and the interior ministry did to Manal al Sharif, a lot of women became afraid," he said. "The Interior Ministry has put a lot of police on the street. They want to send a message to all women."
Osamah Alluaidan, an opponent of female drivers, posted on Facebook, "It is not a sin for women to drive but when women drive and disobey the Kingdom's guardians, that's the problem, this is unacceptable."
Strict segregation by sex means women in Saudi Arabia can't travel without a male relative or take public transportation. Many women hire expensive drivers or taxis to get around.
Since al Sharif's detention, several Saudi women have uploaded their videos onto the web.
Amnesty International said Saudi women should be allowed to seek more freedoms.
"Saudi Arabian authorities must stop treating women as second-class citizens and open the kingdom's roads to women drivers," the organization said.
Source: CNN News