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Shifting gear: Saudi women defy driving ban

Dozens of women took part in a "drive-in" protest, despite warnings from government, and mixed signals from the police.

Last updated: 27 Oct 2013 16:00
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Saudi women broke the ban on driving and took the streets on October 26 [Reuters]

Doha, Qatar - While hackers were able to attack the October 26 campaign's website and clerics denounced the cause of women driving in Saudi Arabia, many women were able to get behind the wheel on Saturday - albeit quietly.

The campaign's website was hacked

A day earlier, hackers were able to deface the campaign's website with a message that said: "This site has been hacked because I am against women driving in this holy country."

Activists say that messages trying to put the brakes on their cause were not only coming from anonymous online sources, but from government authorities.

Saudi writer and activist Hala al-Dosari told Al Jazeera that the website was censored inside the kingdom by the Saudi internet watchdog, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). "Unless you have a proxy to access censored websites, many people could not access Oct26driving.org but they still got almost 16,000 signatures," she said.

The Saudi Ministry of Interior also warned the country that anyone caught supporting the cause, either on the road by driving or even online by posting videos of women driving, would face harsh consequences. Ministry of Interior spokesman Turki al-Faisal was quoted in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat as saying that "cyber-laws could apply to anyone supporting the women driving campaign".

When asked to clarify what would happen to those who were caught posting videos online of women driving, al-Faisal said legal measures would be taken "against whoever violates the anti-cyber crime law", an offence punishable by a five-year prison sentence.

After such pressure, the campaign officially called off their plan on Friday night- instead called for an open-ended drive-in under a new hashtag: #Nov31driving.

Activists say that the date was chosen as a symbolic reference, as the month of November has only 30 days.

"This way, the traffic police will find it difficult to place their men on the roads monitoring women as they cannot do this for every single day," said al-Dosari.

Al-Dosari described the police presence on the streets of Jeddah on Saturday as if they were "preparing for major protests".

"A lot of women were driving in side streets and avoiding the main highways. The point of driving on this day was meant to show an act of rebellion and activism and get it on video and pictures to advance the cause," said al-Dosari.

The "October 26 movement" is one of several campaigns that have gained accelerating support in recent years, dating back to the 1990s, when around 50 women were arrested during a driving protest.

Saudi women discuss driving ban

In Saudi Arabia, no penal code exists that explicitly states that women are forbidden from driving. The government simply does not issue any licenses to women, who mostly rely on personal male drivers or relatives to get around.

Clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the monarchy enforce the driving ban, warning that breaking it will spread "licentiousness".

International scrutiny

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has come under the spotlight once again as it has failed to deliver on promises made to the international community back in 2009, including the rights for women to vote and drive.

According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), the Saudi government failed to implement recommendations during its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) held in Geneva on October 21.

"Citizens continue to be deprived of their basic human rights and human rights defenders and their families continue to be targeted as a result of their human rights work," said the GCHR in a statement released earlier last week. "Many face a myriad of violations including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, travel bans, judicial harassment and unfair trials."

The conservative Muslim kingdom has come under continued scrutiny after it rejected a non-permanent seat on the United Nations' Security Council, blasting the body and calling for "fundamental reform of the Security Council's system".

It declined the seat, saying that the council failed in its duties to act in conflicts - including the war in Syria.

It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is still barring women from driving.

Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch condemned the Saudi government on Thursday. "It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is still barring women from driving," said Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women's rights researcher at HRW. "It is past time to address the country’s systemic discrimination; driving could open roads to reform."

Amnesty International agrees. "Saudi Arabian authorities use the excuse that society at large is behind the ban and claim that the law does not discriminate against women. But at the same time they continue to harass and intimidate women activists," said Said Boumedouha, acting Middle East and North Africa programme director for Amnesty International in a statement on Friday.

"This has included phone calls and online threats, arbitrary travel bans and detentions, forcing activists and their family members to sign pledges not to drive, and using the state-controlled media to discredit activists," he said.


Political vs social issue

Activists went further in saying that the issue of allowing women to drive stems from a political stance, not a social one. "The campaign had over 16,000 signatures in support of women driving. I also accompanied a friend a few days before Saturday and a traffic police officer was taking the same turn as us but he did not do anything," said al-Dosari.

"So the issue is not a social one at all. It is political because the Saudi government does not want to show that they are yielding to public demands and protests from their people," she added.

Mark LeVine, professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, agreed with al-Dosari, saying: "The religious establishment is extremely conservative and can force policies upon the governing royal elite, whose position always feels rather tenuous.

"I take them at their word that they feel that any concession to women's public rights will ultimately undermine the whole framework of hyper-patriarchal Saudi rule in the country. To allow even one small move towards greater rights means allowing the floodgates to open and they are likely right - which is precisely why women must be supported."

Taking the wheel, taking control?

Women in Saudi Arabia outnumber their male counterparts in the education sector. According to reports, around 60 percent of the country's graduates are women. Yet the World Economic Forum rankedSaudi Arabia 127 out of 135 countries in their gender gap report for 2013.

It is a disgrace to a modern society such as Saudi Arabia that women are still not able to drive.

Hala al-Dosari, Saudi activist and writer

"The way for the social sphere in our country is made for men, not women," said al-Dosari. "But now many women outnumber men in education yet we still face problems in getting jobs and employment."

But will women face better chances after finally be able to vote in nation-wide elections in 2015? "I have no idea," said LeVine. "They clearly felt that pushing it now would bring too hard a crackdown, so chose a tactical retreat. This is, needless to say, a victory for the hardliners."

He added that international pressure may still help Saudi women to drive but it would be an uphill battle. "It is up to the world community to force their governments to stop doing business with this regime… or I doubt Saudi women will succeed in the near future. Supporters of Saudi women should thus focus on their own governments first; that's the best way to support them." 

Al-Dosari said the gulf between Saudi women and politicians remained huge. "It is a disgrace to a modern society such as Saudi Arabia that women are still not able to drive," said al-Dosari. "The fight is more challenging. The government views are so different from Saudi women's aspirations and it is a continuous struggle."

While many Saudi women will continue to try and get behind the wheel in the coming weeks and risk signing pledges, a legal document usually handed by the police to woman and their male "guardians" who break the ban on driving, many are still optimistic.

"Hopefully we will face an open door in the future," said al-Dosari.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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