RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A court in Saudi Arabia agreed to hear the first lawsuits by Saudi women challenging the kingdom's de facto ban on women driving, a lawyer for one of the women said.

The legal push is a shift by activists after years of simply appealing to Saudi leaders for permission to drive and, more rarely, taking to the roads in small numbers to test enforcement.
Since mid-2011, the limited push to win women the right to drive has been one of the few fronts in a country largely bypassed by the Arab Spring activist movements of the past year.

The lawsuits, one of them by Manal al Sharif, who founded a small movement last year called Women2Drive, risk a backlash from the public and officials in the conservative kingdom.

But with no breakthroughs in a campaign for the right to drive begun by Saudi women during the first Gulf war in the early 1990s, it was time to change tactics, said Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi computer consultant. "It's 22 years now," she said. "We have to just finish it."

Government officials contacted about the case did not respond to requests for comment.

No written law bans women from driving in Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah has said he sees nothing wrong with women driving. But in a country founded by followers of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, women are uniformly denied driver's licenses and risk sentences of fines, jail or floggings for driving.

Advocates of a ban say it is in line with stringent interpretations of the Koran that discourage the mixing of unrelated women and men. A report prepared by a Saudi academic in December for an advisory body to the king said allowing women the freedom to drive would lead to widespread loss of virginity among unmarried Saudi women.

Advocates of the right to drive call the de facto ban a crippling and costly restriction on millions of Saudi women, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars a year for a driver, depend on male relatives for rides, or simply stay at home.

Sharif started her campaign last year, the same day a Saudi court jailed her for more than a week for driving and having herself videotaped driving.

Sharif's lawyer, AbdulRahman Allahim, said Monday that a court that hears citizen complaints against the government, the Board of Grievances, had agreed to hear the case. Prosecution of women drivers is typically handled elsewhere, in religious courts.

In a possible shift that could improve the chances of women seeking the right to drive, among other issues, a local newspaper reported on Saturday that Saudi authorities would create a new commission to handle social issues such as women driving.

While the government has not confirmed the report, the suggestion that cases of women driving might be moved out of religious courts electrified both sides of the debate.

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