Saudi women ‘drive-in’ falters amid threats


Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city. Photo - AFP

Riyadh: Saudi women scrapped a "drive-in" on Saturday and opted for an open-ended campaign after the authorities vowed to punish any of them who get behind the wheel in defiance of a ban.

Activists had originally taken to social media networks to call on women across the kingdom to drive their cars on Saturday to challenge Saudi law.

But despite warnings from the authorities that action would be taken against any women who drive, at least two of them responded to the call and took the wheel early on Saturday morning.

"I have received videos from two women who drove so far today, one in Riyadh and one in Jeddah," activist and blogger Eman Al Nafjian said.

One of the videos uploaded to YouTube shows a woman cloaked in black and wearing dark sunglasses driving a car in an area of the Saudi capital, apparently without being stopped.

The woman identified as May Al Sawyan could be seen steering the vehicle in what appeared to be the parking lot of a shopping mall, before driving onto a main road with little traffic.

The campaign dubbed "Women's Driving is a Choice" has taken a back seat in the face of the warnings.

But activists say this is only temporarily, stressing their determination to overturn Saudi law is still strong.

"The authorities clearly do not want any gatherings on a specific date," activist Maysaa Al Amudi said of the "drive-in".

"We are trying to calm things down and affirm that the campaign will continue but without a specific date."

Some women have said they received telephone calls from the interior ministry asking them to promise they will not drive on Saturday.

"Out of caution and respect for the interior ministry's warnings... we are asking women not to drive... and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign," said activist Najla Al Hariri.

On Wednesday, the ministry said it would act against anyone who attempts to "disturb public peace" by congregating or marching "under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving".

The next day ministry spokesman General Mansur Al Turki said: "It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support" of this cause.

Activists say on Saturday was chosen as a "symbolic" date as part of efforts first launched more than a decade ago to press for the right of Saudi women to drive.

The absolute monarchy is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, and public gatherings are officially banned in the Gulf country.

Hariri said she would not drive on Saturday but would do so on other days.

Other Saudi women have defied the ban and driven in various parts of the kingdom in the past two weeks, with videos showing them behind the wheel posted on the Internet.

Hackers on Friday targeted an online petition that was launched in September and amassed more than 16,000 signatures before the authorities blocked it two weeks later.

"I am against women driving in the kingdom," read a message posted on the website http://www.oct26driving.com. "We do not allow women at all to drive in Saudi."

Amnesty International has denounced the threats, while Human Rights Watch called for an end to discrimination.

"The ban and the ongoing scare tactics to maintain it are out of step with the modern world, and characteristic of the wider discrimination that crushes women's freedom and besmirches the kingdom's reputation," said Amnesty.

The UN Human Rights Council has also urged Saudi Arabia to end discrimination against women, among other rights abuses.

Women who have defied the driving ban, which is not based on a specific law, in the past have run into trouble with the authorities.

In 1990, authorities stopped 47 women who got behind the wheel in a demonstration against the driving ban.

In 2011, Saudi police arrested a number of women who defied the ban and forced them to sign a pledge not to drive again.

Saudi women are forced to cover from head to toe and need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.

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