Long road to getting ban relaxed on Saudi women drivers

Still from YouTube clip showing Saudi woman driving This YouTube clip shows Saudis giving the 'thumbs up' to a woman driver, with a caption saying: "Families express their support"

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A social media campaign in Saudi Arabia to win women there the right to drive culminates with a call for them to take to the wheel across the country on Saturday.

It is the third such campaign in the past 20 years, and while authorities have warned against taking part, there are some signs attitudes are changing, as Sebastian Usher reports.

Since launching the latest campaign last month, activists say they have sensed a new mood in Saudi Arabia that is increasingly favourable to lifting the ban on women driving.

They say it is very different from back in 1990 when nearly 50 women staged their first act of defiance - leading to arrests and many losing their jobs.

One of the women who took part in that first protest as well as the second one in 2011, Dr Madeha al Ajroush, has posted a video of herself driving on YouTube in which she says: "It is now time for Saudi women to drive. I am ready. My daughter is ready. And society is ready."

Dozens of other Saudi women have also posted videos of themselves driving in various Saudi cities online.

One that has attracted a lot of attention shows a woman driving on a highway, receiving the "thumbs up" from several Saudi men in another car as they pass her.

One of the organisers of the campaign, Zaki Safar, told the BBC that the fact that none of these women has been arrested encouraged activists to believe that the authorities were taking a softer stance on the issue.

He said that in the one incident where a leading woman activist was stopped by the police for filming women driving, the police had behaved with considerable politeness and then let her go as they did not seem to know what other procedure to follow.

'Outdated'

Thousands of Saudis have signed an online petition in favour of lifting the ban or posted slogans and cartoons in support.

Local newspapers and TV channels have addressed the issue in an unprecedented way, with many articles suggesting it is time for the ban to be lifted.

Start Quote

It's not an issue of 'let's be equal with men'. This is just necessity”

End Quote Hatoon Kadi. Saudi comedienne

Many do so on purely practical grounds - that it is no longer in line with a more modern Saudi Arabia where many women work.

One such woman is Hatoon Kadi. She comes from Mecca but is currently studying for a PhD in England.

But her alter ego is as a female comedian with a popular show on Youtube, NoonalNiswa.

In one episode, she underlines the irony of the ban. Addressing Saudi men, she tells them that whatever they might think, they were not actually the most important men in the lives of their mothers, sisters or wives. Instead, it was their drivers.

She told the BBC: "It's not an issue of 'let's be equal with men'. This is just necessity. Maybe restricting women's movements 50 years ago was an appropriate thing to do but it's not any more".

Her husband, Turki, agrees: "From my own point of view I think sharing responsibilities between men and women is a good idea."

He says that having to pay the expenses of a driver is a big financial burden.

The fact that Saudi men also have to be prepared to drop other commitments at a moment's notice to chauffeur their wife or mother somewhere disrupts the workplace.

Mr Safar says that one of the biggest changes in the latest campaign compared to 1990 and 2011 is the growing support of men for lifting the ban.

He says that there had been indications that the official line on the ban was shifting, too.

Statements by the religious police that there was basically no reason to arrest women drivers encouraged the sense that things were changing.

Three women on the influential Shura Council also recently made an official call for the ban to be lifted.

Opposition

One of the key movers behind the campaign, Eman al Nafjan, advised caution, though, telling the BBC that there were always rumours that the ban might be removed whenever protests against it were organised.

Saudi woman passenger Saudi women have to be driven by male drivers

It is not as if there is not still opposition to it in Saudi Arabia.

A group of around 100 conservative clerics gathered at the Royal Court, denouncing the campaign as a conspiracy by women and a serious threat to the country.

One sheikh had earlier attracted mockery online when he suggested that a key reason for not letting women drive was that it would damage their ovaries and lead to defective children.

There are women who are against the campaign too, seeing it as the product of an arrogant, Western-educated elite, wanting to interfere with traditional values still held dear by their less privileged Saudi sisters.

Ms Kadi acknowledges this, which is why she does not want to call for the right to drive as a political issue.

"We are talking to other people with different views. They think that we should not drive, because this is our society and you should not be doing this.

"So if I approach them, saying: 'Now we will drive and then we will do this, this and this' - for me it's never going to work. Driving is out of necessity - it's just a basic human right."

Mr Safar says that he has friends from the younger generation of Saudis who also think it is a bad idea.

"They say that it will increase car accidents. Their excuse is that there will be more sexual harassment. They think that women will not be able to handle situations like accidents or flat tyres".

Mixed messages

After taking a low profile, the Saudi authorities have in recent days restated that the ban remains in place and implicitly told women not to take part in the campaign.

Women planning on driving have been contacted by phone. Some have said they have now changed their mind and will not participate. Others say they will not be put off.

The number of videos of women driving being posted has also dwindled.

The Saudi authorities are concerned about any hint of public protest - however benign its organisers declare their intentions to be.

This may have been the most dynamic campaign so far to win Saudi women the right to drive - it even has its own song by a well-known Saudi-born singer, Shams - but its organisers, participants and supporters never expected change overnight.

The latest hardline reaction from the government may not tell the whole story of how the authorities view the issue.

It is still a case of mixed messages, with some government figures privately backing change.

But it has shown the campaigners that they still have a struggle on their hands - whether they want to win the right to drive purely as a practical necessity or another step on the road to greater rights for women.

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