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Saudi Women Hit the Road in Driving Ban Protest

 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A Saudi woman defiantly drove through the nation's capital Friday while others brazenly cruised by police patrols in the first forays of a campaign that hopes to ignite a road rebellion against the male-only driving rules in the ultraconservative kingdom.

It was a rare grass-roots challenge to the Western-backed Saudi monarchy as it tries to ride out the Arab world's wave of change, and a lesson in how the uprisings are taking root in different ways. In this case, the driver's seat was turned into a powerful platform for women's rights in a country where wives and daughters have almost no political voice.

"We've seen that change is possible," said Maha al-Qahtani, a computer specialist at Saudi's Ministry of Education. She said she drove for 45 minutes around the capital, Riyadh with her husband in the passenger seat. "This is Saudi women saying, `This is our time to make a change."'

The number of Saudi women who drove apparently was small and there were no mass convoys of women at the wheel. No arrests or violence were immediately reported.

But the show of defiance could bring difficult choices for the Saudi regime, which has so far has escaped major unrest. Officials could either order a crackdown on the women or give way to the demands at the risk of angering traditional-minded clerics and other conservative groups.

It also could encourage wider reform bids by Saudi women, who are not allowed to vote and must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or take a job.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bans women from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

A similar effort more than two decades ago faltered. In November 1990, when U.S. troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia before the invasion to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait, about 50 women got behind the wheel and drove family cars. They were jailed for one day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs.

The official start of the latest campaign follows the 10-day detention last month of a 32-year-old woman, Manal al-Sherif, after she posted video of herself driving. She was released after reportedly signing a pledge that she would not drive again or speak publicly.

Her case, however, sparked an outcry from international rights groups and brought direct appeals to Saudi's rulers to lift the driving ban.

On Friday, activists said security forces mostly stood by in an apparent effort to avoid clashes or international backlash. Eman al-Nafjan, a prominent Saudi-based blogger, said some women drove directly in front of police units, which made no attempts to intervene.

"To be honest, we didn't expect that," she said in a telephone interview. "The more women who drive without problem, the more that will join them."

Activists have not appealed for protests in any specific sites. Instead, they urged Saudi women to begin a mutiny on their own against the driving restrictions that are supported by clerics backing austere interpretations of Islam and enforced by powerful morality squads.

Encouragement poured in via the Internet. "Take the wheel. Foot on the gas," said one Twitter message on the main site women2Drive. Another urged: "Saudi women, start your engines!"

A YouTube page urged supporters around the world to honk their car horns in solidarity with the Saudi women.

"We want women from today to begin exercising their rights," said Wajeha al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women's rights activist who posted Internet clips of herself driving in 2008. "Today on the roads is just the opening in a long campaign. We will not go back."

The plan, she said, is for women who have obtained driving licenses abroad to begin doing their daily errands and commuting on their own. "We'll keep it up until we get a royal decree removing the ban," she told The Associated Press.

Al-Nafjan said she accompanied a friend who drove around the capital for 15 minutes with her children in the car. She estimated more 31 women took a drive nationwide, according to reports logged on social media websites keeping track of the event.

A protest supporter, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, said some Saudi men claimed they drove around dressed in the traditional black coverings for women in an attempt to confuse security forces.

Witnesses in the eastern city of Dammam reported that four women took a spin with their families on the city's corniche at dawn without incident. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitivity of the matter.

Conservative forces staged an Internet counterattack. One video -- denouncing the "revolution of corruption" -- featured patriotic songs and a sinister-looking black hand with red fingernails reaching for the Saudi flag. On Facebook, a hard-line group had the message for Saudi women seeking the right to drive: "Dream on."

Saudi Arabia has no written law barring women from driving -- only fatwas, or religious edicts, by senior clerics following a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism.

They claim the driving ban protects against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive.

Saudi King Abdullah has promised some social reforms, but he depends on the clerics to support his ruling family and is unlikely to take steps that would bring backlash from the religious establishment.