DUBAI: In the six months since Saudi activists renewed calls to defy the kingdom’s ban on female drivers, small numbers of women have gotten behind the wheel almost daily in what has become the country’s longest such campaign.
Organizers are calling on more women to join in Saturday, when U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit Riyadh.
The activists say their long-term goal is not just to win Saudi women the freedom to drive, but to clear a path for broader democratic reforms.
This week, 70 members of the U.S. Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Obama urging him to raise critical human rights cases in Saudi Arabia and meet with female activists. So far, the White House has only announced plans for Obama to meet King Abdullah and U.S. Embassy staff.
Amnesty International urged the president to go even further and select a female Secret Service agent as his driver while in Saudi Arabia – a move that is highly unlikely, since Obama is coming to the kingdom for the first time since 2009 to repair strained relations between the U.S. and its ally.
Since Oct. 26, the first day of the renewed campaign, over 100 women have gotten behind the wheel, said Eman al-Nafjan, an organizer.
So far, the government appears unwilling to launch a crackdown.
While it is still uncommon to see women driving in Saudi Arabia, they have been sending videos and photos of themselves behind the wheel to the campaign’s organizers, who then upload the footage to YouTube almost daily.
“It’s very hard to strategize in a place where political activism has no history,” Nafjan said. “So our strategy is to keep marching on and to see if people join or not.”
Naseema al-Sada has driven in the eastern region of Qatif. She said public attitudes had changed in the past six months, as evidenced by the way the campaign was openly talked about in the Saudi media.
“Women’s rights are no longer a taboo subject,” she said.
In an opinion piece this week published by the Saudi-based Arab News website, columnist Sabria Jawhar wrote that Saudi society either accepted or was indifferent to women getting behind the wheel now.
“If Oct. 26 has taught us anything, the driving ban is a government position. I have said many times in this column that I and most of the women I know want the right to drive whether we actually get behind the wheel or not,” she wrote.
Activists say allowing women to drive will have a domino effect for civil rights in Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is effectively the law of the land. Women must get permission from a male relative – usually a husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son – to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.
“And this is what scares people: That women will be out of the total control of men,” Sada said.
Though there is no law on the books that explicitly bars women from driving, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the traffic police in Saudi Arabia, will not issue driver’s licenses to women.
So far, the ministry has warned violators will be dealt with firmly.
Police have also privately told the campaigners not to speak to the media, warned them not to drive and followed some around for days.
Women caught driving have been forced to sign pledges not to do it again. If they are caught again, they are pressured to sign another pledge. A male relative is called to pick them up from a police station or on the side of the road. The men are then made to sign pledges they will not let the women drive.
In one case, a woman’s car was confiscated and has not been returned to her since January. In another, writer and schoolteacher Tariq al-Mubarak was detained for several days and interrogated when police found out that the mobile phone number used by organizers was registered under his name.
Still, the government response is more muted than in the past. During the first major protest, in 1990, around 50 women drove. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. Their male relatives were also barred from traveling for six months.
Then in June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. One woman was later arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes. The king overturned the sentence.
Madeha al-Ajroush, who was part of the first driving campaign more than two decades ago, said she wants Obama to address human rights while in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re not oil; we’re also people,” she said. “The humanity of Saudi Arabia needs to be looked at seriously.”