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We want to drive not be driven, say Saudi women

Last updated on: June 21, 2011 11:36 IST

We want to drive not be driven, say Saudi women

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Rediff Newsdesk

A battle is on in Saudi Arabia. Women in the kingdom are up in arms against the biased law that prevents women from taking the steering wheel.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women -- both Saudi and foreign -- from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.

The issue of women driving has been debated for decades in Saudi Arabia and the issue has remain unresolved so far.

The issue first flared up in 2009 following the postgraduate thesis of Areej, a 24-year-old Saudi woman studying design in the US.

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Image: A Saudi woman poses in this picture to illustrate driving a car in Jeddah
Photographs: Susan Baaghil/Reuters
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'It is a pretty big deal'

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As part of her project titled called 'N7nu -- We the Woman', Areej launched a website that has gained its own momentum. It is a place where differing views from both men and women, Saudis and non-Saudis, are being expressed openly and freely.

"The issue or the idea of women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia is something that people don't talk about, although it is a pretty big deal," she told Arab News.

"We have a very complicated culture. It has become pretty big since I started the website; it's grown fast. In the beginning, when I decided to adopt this as the subject of my thesis, I had to explain the idea for over five minutes to my colleagues (in the US). There is a lot of gap in our cultures and it was difficult to make people understand why the subject was such a big deal," she added.

More recently, Saudi women launched the Women2Drive campaign to secure the right of driving cars. They have posted videos on YouTube, showing them behind the wheels, filmed by their fathers and husbands.


Image: An image posted on the We the Women 'Declarations' set on Flickr

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The traditional argument in Saudi Arabia

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On Monday, Manal al-Sherif, who started a Facebook page called Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself, was detained after she posted a video of herself behind the wheel on Facebook and YouTube to encourage others to emulate her.

She went on a test drive in the eastern city of Khobar Saturday and later  posted a video of the experience, the Daily Mail reported.

"This is a volunteer campaign to help the girls of this country. At least for times of emergency, God forbid. What if whoever is driving them gets a heart attack," she asked.

"The traditional argument in Saudi Arabia is that driving exposes women to sinful temptations by allowing them to mingle with policemen and mechanics, women who drive can avoid sexual harassment from their drivers and protect their dignity."


Image: A Saudi woman looks out of her car in Jeddah
Photographs: Susan Baaghil/Reuters
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Saudi Arabia, 'the world's largest women's prison'

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"We want to live as complete citizens, without  he humiliation that we are  subjected to everyday because we are tied to a driver. We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities, we are here to claim one of our simplest rights," the Mail quoted her as saying.

United States has been quietly putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive, according to leaked US embassy cables. 

The Guardian reports that the cables, part of the trove allegedly given to WikiLeaks by the US soldier Bradley Manning, reveal previously unreported clashes over women's rights. 

Dispatches from Riyadh describe Saudi Arabia as 'the world's largest women's prison'. 


Image: A vehicle stops at a Saudi traffic police checkpoint in Riyadh
Photographs: Fahad Shadeed/Reuters
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'The driving ban is something of a charade'

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The words are a quote from one female campaigner US diplomats have been in contact with, Wajeha Al Huwaider.

She too posted a video on YouTube in 2008 of herself driving. Saying millions of Saudi women were prisoners in their homes, she challenged male control over work and travel. 

The billionaire tycoon Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal assured a visiting Democrat congressman in July 2009 that King Abdullah did support women's rights, the embassy noted optimistically. The driving ban was reportedly about to be overturned. 

Speaking at his 99-storey Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Al Waleed said the ban was merely a "demeaning" tribal custom. His wife has openly requested that women be allowed to drive. 

According to US diplomats, the driving ban is something of a charade which "dates from a 1991 fatwa issued by the late grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz." 


Image: Activists hold placards, expressing solidarity with Saudi women in their fight for basic civil rights and their right to drive, during a protest in front of the Saudi embassy in Beirut
Photographs: Cynthia Karam/Reuters
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'Women driving cars is a social issue, not religious'

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Meanwhile, Manal al-Sherif's arrest has triggered a buzz on social networking websites.

A Facebook page supporting Manal says: 'The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques have your declarations in 2007 that the issue of women driving cars is a social issue and the role of the state to provide the appropriate environment for any decision deemed the community. He also told the Minister of Interior, Second Deputy to the women driving cars is a social issue, not religious, which means in theory that if the community wants to lift the ban there would be no obstacle.'

'We encourage you to immediately release Manal Al-Sharif and the lifting of the right of the injustice, as she drove with her brother and with his approval, along with its license to drive recognised in accordance with the traffic rules.'


Image: A Saudi woman looks out from the back seat of a car in Jeddah
Photographs: Susan Baaghil/Reuters
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'Whip women who dare to drive'

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Saudi Arabian men are, however, not pleased with the growing popularity of the campaign.

Some individuals have launched a Facebook campaign in response to the women's protest against the law banning them from driving in the ultra-conservative nation.

The page, titled 'The Iqal campaign for preventing women from driving', refers to the Arabic name for the cord used to hold on the traditional headdress worn by many men in the Gulf, advocating the cord be used to whip women who dare to drive. It drew over 6,000 'likes' on the social networking website.


Image: A Saudi man drives his relatives in Jeddah
Photographs: Susan Baaghil/Reuters
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