Sunday, June 19, 2011

Saudi Arabia women drive cars in protest

The “Arab Spring” has caught the attention of the world and it is still unclear how far it will reach or how it will change the landscape in the Middle East. There is one small protest growing out of it that has not been widely reported but caught my attention. Women in Saudi Arabia have been openly driving cars in defiance of an official ban on female drivers in the ultra-conservative kingdom. The action has been organized on social network sites, where women have been posting images and videos of themselves behind the wheel. The Women2Drive Facebook page said the direct action would continue until a royal decree reversed the ban.

Last month, a woman was arrested after uploading a video of herself driving. Manal al-Sherif was accused of "besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion", but was released after 10 days -having promised not to drive again.

Campaigners have not called for a mass protest - which would be illegal - but have asked women who have foreign driving licenses to drive themselves as they go about their daily life. "All that we need is to run our errands without depending on drivers," said one woman in the first film posted. The film showed the unnamed woman talking as she drove to a supermarket and parking.

"It is not out of love for driving or traffic or the experience. All this is about is that if I wanted to go to work, I can go. If I needed something I can go and get it. I think that society is ready to welcome us."

Another protester said she drove around the streets of Riyadh for 45 minutes "to make a point". "I took it directly to the streets of the capital," said Maha al-Qahtani, a computer specialist at the Ministry of Education.

"It's not one of your major rights. But we tell them that even if you give us all the basic and big rights, that you are claiming are more important than driving, we can't enjoy practicing those rights because the mobility is not there. We can't move around without a male."

The motoring ban is not enforced by law, but is a religious fatwa imposed by conservative Muslim clerics. It is one of a number of severe restrictions on women in the country. Supporters of the ban say it protects women and relieves them of the obligation to drive, while also preventing them from leaving home unescorted or traveling with an unrelated male. But the men and women behind the campaign - emboldened by uprisings across the Middle East and Arab world - say they hope the ban will be lifted and that other reforms will follow.

Amnesty International has said the Saudi authorities "must stop treating women as second-class citizens", describing the ban as "an immense barrier to their freedom of movement".

The last mass protest against the ban took place in 1990, when a group of 47 women were arrested for driving and severely punished - many subsequently lost their jobs. The women were angered that female US soldiers based in the kingdom after the war with Kuwait could drive freely while they could not.

Live Long and Prosper....

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