SAUDI ARABIA: Security forces clamp down on those allegedly behind campaign to defy ban on women drivers
Saudi Arabian authorities have clamped down on women's rights activists after a bold call by a group of women in the ultra-conservative kingdom on social media sites on the Internet to break a ban on women driving.
Saudi police arrested at least two people linked to the campaign and shut down a Facebook page meant to promote civil disobedience, according to the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper the National.
Saudi security forces loyal to King Abdullah, whose family has ruled the kingdom for 80 years, arrested Manal Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, and her brother, the National reported.
On Facebook and Twitter, activists had launched a campaign calling on women in Saudi Arabia who hold international drivers' licenses to get behind the wheel on Friday, June 17, and drive their cars to protest the country's ban on women driving.
Their call is a daring initiative. Women who have defied the ban in the past have lost their jobs, been banned from travel and denounced by members of the country's powerful extremist religious establishment.
The women say their planned move is not a protest nor an attempt to break the law, but rather a bid to claim basic rights as human beings.
"We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves," read a statement posted on the group's Facebook site, I will Drive Starting June 17, before Saudi censors took it down. "We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driver's licenses and we will abide by traffic laws."
Their Facebook group had garnered more than 11,000 supporters and around 3,000 people follow the group's account on Twitter.
Critics say Saudi, a staunch U.S. ally and largest exporter of oil in the world, has a horrific record on human rights and women's liberties. In addition, it's said to be pumping cash into global Islamic organizations that promote extremist Islamic thinking across the Islamic world, including the nascent democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.
But some Saudis themselves are trying to challenge the conservativism of their own country.
On recent incident suggests things are already heating up on the women's ban driving issue. A few days ago, 30-year-old Saudi housewife and mother Najla Hairiri told Agence-France Presse how she drove her car in the streets of the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah for four days before getting stopped.
She took the decision "to defend her belief that Saudi women should be allowed to drive" and said she wasn't afraid of being hauled into detention for flouting the driving ban because she felt she was setting a good example for her daughter and other young Saudi women.
"I don't fear being arrested because I am setting an example that my daughter and her friends are proud of,'' she said, adding that she also offers driving lessons for women.
Below is a video clip showing Saudi women's right activist Wajeha Huwaidar driving her car in a rural part of the kingdom on International Women's Day in 2008 and talking about the problems that come with not letting women drive in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict interpretation of the ultra-conservative Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. Aside from being banned from driving, Saudi women face a myriad of other restrictions. They cannot travel on their own without getting authorization from a male guardian, cannot receive an education without male approval, and are not allowed to cast ballots in municipal elections -- the only kind of elections that currently exist in the absolute monarchy.
If the call for defying the driving ban on women materializes on June 17, it will not be the first time women in Saudi Arabia will have gotten behind the wheel and taken to the streets in protest. On Nov. 6, 1990, a group of women drove through the streets of the Saudi capital Riyadh before getting pulled over and stopped.
Several of the women reportedly lost their jobs and were denounced as by powerful religious figures.
Recent comments by Saudi religious clerics about the June 17 campaign suggest the sight of women driving in the streets will go down with the religious clergymen as badly as it did in 1990.
Saudi cleric Mohammed Nujaimi told Bloomberg News that the women's plan was “against the law" and that driving does “more harm than good” to women, because they might intermingle with males who are not their relatives, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: A screenshot of the Facebook group "I Will Drive Starting June 17". Credit: Facebook. Video credit: YouTube