Dozens of Saudi Arabian women moved into the driver's seat and took the wheel Friday in open defiance of the Muslim nation's law forbidding a woman to drive.
What appeared initially to be a simple Saudi Women's Revolution protest against a long-standing ban began in April, called the Iqal Campaign.
A 32-year-old single mother named Manal al-Sharif – easy prey for the patriarchal Saudi system – organized a Facebook call for a protest on June 17 by posting photos of herself driving around. Police arrested her in late May, jailing her for nine days.
Nevertheless, although smaller than expected, the group of women activists stuck to their guns and last week carried out the planned protest. Women holding drivers' licenses from other countries were encouraged to drive around the capital on basic errands, reported The New York Times.
One woman, whose husband is a human rights activist and who accompanied her on such a mission, even brought with her a prayer rug and a change of clothes in case police decided to arrest her.
But they didn't. They ignored her instead.
In fact, only one other woman was even approached by police in Jedda, and after two hours of questioning, she was released without further incident.
Traditionalists in Saudi society remain opposed to allowing women the right to drive, seeing the change as a breakdown in Islamic norms that prohibit public mingling of the sexes. Reformists, on the other hand, ask why it is then considered acceptable for women to be ferried about by thousands of male drivers imported from southeast Asia. They also question Islamic clerics' sexualization of even basic day-to-day behavior.
Drivers in Saudi Arabia must obtain a special visa costing more than $3,000 in order to work, and then earn salaries of some $600 per month. Those who hire the drivers typically pay both fees. Few women can afford such sums, protesters point out.
Reports on social media, where the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page has garnered nearly 7,000 “Likes” supporters, also reflect increased political activism by women in the country.
A column written by Dr. Htun Ajwad Fassi was published in last Sunday's June 12 Arabic-language edition of the daily Al-Riyadh newspaper. Fassi, a Saudi woman activist, wrote on “Municipal Elections, the Shura Council and Women.”
Writing in her “With Time” column, Fassi commented that the time has come for the government to allow women the right to vote. She pointed out that the Shura Council had several years ago granted women the same privilege, and noted that the kingdom will need to do the same or soon suffer international embarrassment.
Fass noted that the current inability of women to vote in municipal elections is “contrary to the international conventions signed by the Kingdom, especially the Convention 'Against All Forms of Discrimination against Women' which was ratified by the Kingdom in 2000.” She noted that the Convention vowed in 2008 in its report before the UN to work to erase discrimination against women in any election held – and which must be addressed by Saudi Arabia by 2012.
“I do not think that the kingdom wishes to be embarrassed … having pledged to such a front before the world, and as a member of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and the Council, “UN Women,” especially without caveats to its participation,” Fassi wrote.