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Saudi Women Ready to Defy Driving Ban, Fueled by Social Media

June 17, 2011

Saudi Arabian women plan to start driving their cars Friday, one month after Manal al-Sherif — a key figure in a social media campaign against a ban on female drivers — was arrested when she posted a YouTube video of herself driving around the city of Khobar.

The mass driving campaign is the result of an online movement that began around two months ago, when Saudi women’s rights activists called for the country’s women to start driving their own cars on June 17. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents women from driving. Though there is no written law on the matter, religious rulings are enforced by the police, which has the same effect as a ban. Women are forced to rely on live-in drivers or male relatives for transportation.

Activists pushed the movement via Facebook, Twitter and other online outlets before some of those accounts were shut down. And al-Sherif was arrested and jailed after her YouTube video (pictured above) hit the web. Al-Sherif was eventually released from a women’s prison after nine days, pledging she would no longer drive nor take part in the Women2Drive initiative.

But online support for the campaign has lived on through copies of earlier Facebook groups. And people in other parts of the world have also taken up the cause. The Honk for Saudi Women viral campaign is one example, featuring videos of women and men from around the world, honking their horns in support of Saudi women who will drive on June 17. The campaign also has a petition on online activism platform, asking Oprah to make a similar video in a show of support.

Other petitions on call on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton — the European Union’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy — to publicly support Saudi women’s right to drive.

This isn’t the first time Saudi women have tried to organize such a campaign. The initiative has been in the works since November 1990, when 47 women drove around Riyadh before getting caught and arrested. Eman Al Nafjan, a female blogger and post graduate student in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, says the women were suspended from their jobs and faced widespread condemnation from mosque pulpits. Fliers were distributed with contact information for the women, and citizens were encouraged to call up and condemn them.

Al Nafjan says the backlash caused the campaign to quiet down for a while, but this year’s Arab Spring probably inspired women to speak up again — not just to be allowed to drive, but for other rights as well.

The Campaign Continues

Though Al Nafjan, who lacks an international driver’s license, won’t be driving on the streets of Riyadh on Friday, she says she knows of many who are taking part.

“It’s a huge inconvenience not being able to drive,” Al Nafjan says, referring to the need for live-in drivers and a lack of public transportation. “And the taxis in Saudi Arabia are unsafe. They are not supervised, so getting into a taxi alone as a woman is dangerous.”

She adds that there are also a number of men supporting the campaign. “It is a huge burden on the men to have to drive all their female relatives around, or to have to provide them with drivers,” she says.

There are also quite a number of men and women against the campaign; Al Nafjan believes they are afraid of change. One Facebook page (now removed) called for women who drive on June 17 to be beaten. And while June 17 was a date chosen at random, Al Nafjan says, some opponents have linked it to a Shia Muslim holiday and claimed it is an Iranian conspiracy against Saudi Arabia. (Shia Muslims are a minority in Saudi Arabia, and a majority in Iran.)

Despite safety concerns, Al Nafjan says many women will still go through with their plans to drive on June 17 — though others might make their protest on a different date.

“If I drove today, or if I drove next week … the only thing that will happen to me is that I will be taken to the police station, but I wouldn’t be taken into jail,” she explains. “They would make me wait until my male guardian comes in and signs a document, pledging that he will make sure I won’t drive again, and that will be it.”

A statement from Saudi Women for Driving and makes clear that no one expects immediate transformation from the campaign. But many participants view it as a start. And Benjamin Joffe-Walt,’s human rights editor, believes the campaign’s momentum may stay alive — unlike the November 1990 event — through social media.

“It was a big story, it made international news. But the story kind of died in two weeks,” Joffe-Walt says of 1990. “Now, women can really reach out within Saudi society. They can organize themselves via email and Twitter in a way that’s monitored, but much safer.”

“Most importantly, they can get a lot of attention both domestically and internationally for their cause,” he says.

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