Emboldened by uprisings taking place across the Middle East and Arab world, in Saudi Arabia several women sat behind the wheel on Friday (photo, from lexpress.fr) in defiance of a rule that bans them from driving in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
This action has been organised on social network sites such as the Women2Drive Facebook page, which said the direct action would stop when a royal decree reversed the ban.
In May Manal al-Sherif, 32, was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. She was accused of “besmirching the kingdom’s reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion”. 10 days later she was released, after reportedly signing a pledge that she would not drive again or speak publicly.
As a mass protest would be illegal in the kingdom, organisers have asked women who have foreign driving licences to drive themselves.
“All that we need is to run our errands without depending on drivers,” said one woman in the first film posted in the early hours of Friday morning. The film showed her talking while she drove to a supermarket and parking.
“It is not out of love for driving or traffic or the experience. All this is about is that if I wanted to go to work, I can go. If I needed something I can go and get it.
“I think that society is ready to welcome us.”
Another protester said that “to make a point” she drove around the streets of Riyadh for 45 minutes.
“I took it directly to the streets of the capital,” said Maha al-Qahtani, a computer specialist at the Ministry of Education.
On Twitter, she said “I decided that the car for today is mine”, and described the route she had taken around the city with her husband.
AFP news agency reported that her husband said Mrs Qahtani was carrying her essential belongings and was “ready to go to prison without fear.”
Driving is often considered to be “something really minor”, a woman who asked not to be named told the BBC.
“It’s not one of your major rights. But we tell them that even if you give us all the basic and big rights, that you are claiming are more important than driving, we can’t enjoy practising those rights because the mobility is not there.
“We can’t move around without a male.”
Saudi authorities “must stop treating women as second-class citizens”, said Amnesty International, which said the ban was “an immense barrier to their freedom of movement”.
Not enforced by law, the motoring ban is a religious fatwa, imposed by conservatives Muslim clerics following a strict brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. Women in Saudi Arabia face several restrictions such as having to cover from head to toe in public, needing authorisation from a male guardian to travel, or having restricted access to jobs due to strict rules of segregation.
According to its supporters the ban relieved women of the obligation to drive as well as protects them against the spread of vice and temptation because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers.
Because of the prohibition, families have to hire live-in drivers or rely on male relatives to drive.
The last mass protest against the ban took place in November 1990. Angered that female US soldiers based in the kingdom could drive freely when they could not, a group of women sat behind the wheel. 47 were arrested for driving and severely punished – many subsequently lost their jobs.
Even though Saudi King Abdullah has promised some social reforms, he depends on the clerics to support his ruling family. Therefore he is unlikely to take decisions which would anger the religious establishment.