Women in Saudi Arabia have been forbidden from diving cars, but not because there is a law against it. The prohibition comes from the repressive Islamic Wahhabist clerics who carry so much sway with the government.
They claim the driving ban protects against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive.
There has been a mostly online campaign to encourage women to defy the clerics and drive. The campaign began with the 10 day incarceration of Manal al-Sherif who posted a video of herself driving. Although a similar attempt in 1990 resulted in 47 women being arrested. Two of the sites promoting the protest are a Facebook page and a blog.
Earlier this week, a group of women drove around the Saudi embassy in Washington to protest the kingdom’s ban on female drivers. Similar convoys converged on Saudi diplomatic missions in other cities around the world.
Calls for an ongoing road rebellion could push Western-backed Saudi authorities into difficult choices: either launching a crackdown and facing international pressure or giving way to the demands and angering traditional-minded clerics and other groups opposing reforms.
The men-only driving system is supported by clerics backing austere interpretations of Islam and enforced by powerful morality squads.
Of course, it would help if Western countries would support the changes, but the Saudis are important financial and political allies, which makes such pressure unlikely.
Saudi King Abdullah has promised some social reforms, but he depends on the clerics to support his ruling family and is unlikely to take steps that would bring backlash from the religious establishment.
John Hudson, a writer at The Atlantic has some information on how the protest is going so far.
Today, a number of Saudi women cruised through the streets of Saudi Arabia in automobiles, protesting the country’s male-only driving rules. Fortunately, it appears the rogue drivers got away with the protest with relative impunity, according to reports on Twitter and wire services. “Reports of Saudi women driving in different parts of the country keep coming in, ” tweets NPR’s Ahmed Al Omran. “No arrests so far.” The Associate Press concurs. “No arrests or violence were immediately reported.” One message on Twitter cited a woman in a blue SUV “forced to stop aggressively by 2 police cars” but that appears to be an outlier. It’s not clear how many women participated in the protest. Some peg the number at 13 while others say at least 20.
They vow to continue defying the ban until the government issues a proclamation giving women the right to drive. If this protest is successful, Saudi women may be encouraged to challenge the religious leaders and seek more freedoms.
Good luck to them.