Saudi women driven to protest
- Published: 25 Oct 2013 at 18.46
- Online news:
RIYADH - A group of Saudi Arabian women plan a protest on Saturday to defy the world's only ban on female drivers.
Organisers are urging women across the country to take to the roads. The group, named the "26th October Women’s Driving Campaign", called on the government to provide "a valid and legal justification" for maintaining the ban, and "not simply defer to social consensus", according to its website. More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition in support.
King Abdullah has expanded the rights of women in the world’s biggest oil exporter, without moving fast enough to satisfy many.
Abdullah, who must contend with opposition from traditionalist clerics and their followers, opened the first coeducational university, named the first female deputy minister and said women can vote and run in municipal elections. That right won’t take effect until the 2015 polls though, while the driving ban remains in force.
In a video released by Change.org, a Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy the ban on women driving. (Bloomberg Photo)
"We should feel insulted if someone says we are not ready for this change or that women cannot do this," said May al- Suwayan, a 32-year-old economic researcher who is planning to drive as part of the protest.
"I don’t think Saudis look down on women. I think it’s a matter of fear of change, which will easily be overcome if women show them that we are ready."
There is strong resistance to such views. A group of religious men rallied outside the Royal Court in Jeddah on Tuesday, calling the right-to-drive movement a "conspiracy" against the government, al-Hayat newspaper reported.
Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaidan, a Saudi cleric, told the Sabq website last month that Saudi women shouldn't drive because they risk damaging their ovaries.
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the austere Wahhabi form of Islam. Saudi women need a guardian's consent to travel outside the country, marry or conduct official business.
Saudi Arabia "reduces women to the status of children, unable to make important decisions about their lives", Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Oct 22.
The Interior Ministry warned women against joining the protest, saying laws would be enforced and instability would not be permitted, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki told al Hayat newspaper that those "inciting" for women to be allowed to drive will be penalised.
Activists have been using social media outlets to spread word of the campaign and share pictures of women who have already started driving.
King Abdullah, 89, has stepped up spending to help create jobs since unrest spread through the Arab world in 2011, and women have shared some of the benefits. A total of 680,000 women were employed in 2012, up from 505,000 in 2009, according to official figures. Women have been allowed to take retail jobs that were previously barred.
Wider educational opportunities are also expanding women's roles in the economy. Sara Aalamari, a 27 year-old who works for the Al-Ghazzawi law firm in Jeddah, this year became one of the first four women to receive licences to practise law from the Ministry of Justice, after graduating in 2008 from the first law degree programme offered to Saudi women.
The licence "should make it easier for us to be able to appear in court and represent more clients", Aalamari said from Jeddah. "Women are getting assistance to have a greater role in the workplace."
Economic pressure may help open Saudi roads to women, said John Sfakianakis, chief investment strategist at MASIC in Saudi Arabia.
The cost of employing a driver "is a burden on middle-class purchasing power, and that could be addressed if women are allowed to drive", he said.