By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and DINA SALAH AMER, The New York Times, June 17, 2011
Saudi women get out of the backseats of a car in Riyadh on Friday as a number of Saudi women drove cars in response to calls for nationwide action to break a ban, according to reports on social networks.
CAIRO — Several dozen women drove in defiance of the law in major cities of Saudi Arabia on Friday, according to reports on social media and by an informal network of activists in the country. There appeared to be few confrontations reported with either the traffic or morals police, and at least half a dozen women who were stopped were escorted home and admonished not to drive again, said activists reached by telephone.
From its inception in April, the protest against the longstanding ban was far smaller than initially anticipated, but it was not meant to be a mass driving effort. Rather, women with legal driver’s licenses from other countries were urged to run mundane errands — going to the grocery store, perhaps — in order to underscore the fact that it should be normal for women to drive.
Maha al-Qahtani, an information technology specialist for the government, drove around the capital, Riyadh, for 45 minutes with her husband, Mohamed, a human rights activist, in the car. She braced for a siren after passing each of about five police cars, she said, but they ignored her.
“I woke up today believing with every part of me that this is my right, I woke up believing this is my duty, and I was no longer afraid,” said Mrs. Qahtani, adding that she had brought a change of clothes and a prayer rug with her in case she was detained.
Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old single mother, started the call for the June 17 protest in April with a Facebook page. But after posting videos of herself driving around Al Khobar in the Eastern Province, she was arrested in late May and jailed for nine days — a punishment that was stricter than expected. Many supporters were disappointed, feeling that she had jumped the gun and jeopardized them all by taking a confrontational approach.
Women driving remains a sensitive issue in Saudi Arabia. For religious conservatives, it is a kind of Alamo, with the ban a sign that the kingdom still holds to its traditions and has not caved to Western pressure.
The ruling family has been especially dependent on this base of supporters in recent months as protests erupted across the region and has been mute as the mufti, the highest religious figure in the kingdom, rolled out a fatwa banning protests.
Many Saudi activists considered the treatment meted out to Ms. Sharif a warning from the monarchy against trying to organize any kind of movement via social media. The initiative for women to drive was the strongest effort so far in the kingdom inspired by the regional climate.
“Women in Saudi Arabia see other women in the Middle East making revolutions, women in Yemen and Egypt at the forefront of revolutions, being so bold, toppling entire governments,” said Waleed Abu Alkhair, whose wife drove around Jidda. “The women of Saudi Arabia looked at themselves and they realized, ‘Wow! We can’t even drive!’ ”
Mr. Abu Alkhair said he knew about many women who drove, and aside from one being questioned by the police for two hours, none were bothered. Once the campaign had been announced there were frequent threats by opponents to punish female drivers either by beating them or by smashing their cars.
“We want women to keep fighting this fight and to be free,” he said. “It will help to liberate the entire society.”
In the weeks after Ms. Sharif’s arrest, a debate erupted between conservative clerics and their followers and the kingdom’s increasingly outspoken women. Opponents largely argued that Saudi society was not ready, that a woman should not be thrown into the wilds of Saudi driving habits or be held responsible for any accidents.
Worse, opponents argued, it would lead to the public mingling of the sexes. Supporters mocked the clerics for putting everything in a sexual context and asked why it was O.K. for Saudi women to be driven around by an army of some 800,000 male drivers imported from Southeast Asia.
Although the arrest of Ms. Sharif discouraged women from driving, the fact that it enlivened the debate was in contrast to the first (and last) such protest in November 1990. Clerics branded the 47 women amoral and the royal family confiscated their passports, firing those working for the government. Many went into isolation for their own safety.
In addition to religious opposition there is widespread suspicion in the country that those who control the visa process — and in Saudi Arabia that means the princes of the ruling family — have made a business out of controlling the black market in visas for drivers, which can cost more than $3,000 apiece.
Many young married women decry the fact that they cannot afford that, not to mention the driver’s salary, about $600 a month.
The more liberal princes support allowing women to drive.
Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, 79 years old and long among the most outspoken members of the royal family, argues that such reforms lag because the leading members of the family have failed to yield any power or influence to younger generations.
“Bravo to the women!” the prince said in an interview. “Why should women drive in the countryside and not in the cities?” (Women have long driven in rural areas.)
King Abdullah and other royals have said in interviews with foreign reporters that they expected Saudi women to drive one day soon but have done little lately.
“Saudi Arabian women are going to have to fight for our rights, men are not going to just hand them over to us,” said Amira Kashgary, a professor who drove through Jidda on Friday for 45 minutes with her 21-year-old daughter. Women are tired of being stranded or missing appointments because their drivers disappear for the day, Professor Kashgary said. “We want to drive today, tomorrow, and every day — it’s not a one-day show. We want to make it a norm.”