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Saudi activists rev up women’s right-to-drive campaign

RIYADH: Activists in Saudi Arabia said on Thursday they are revving up a right-to-drive campaign using social media in the world’s only country that bans women from getting behind the wheel.

An online petition asking the Saudi government to “lift the ban on women driving” has attracted more than 2,400 signatures ahead of its culmination on October 26.

“The issue is not that of simply a vehicle driven by a woman, but the acknowledgement and recognition of the humanity of half of society and the God-given rights of women,” the petition states.

It adds the ban is a result of tradition and custom because there is “no single Islamic text” or judicial ruling prohibiting women from taking to the kingdom’s highways.

The petition website, www.oct26driving.com, includes short videos of women driving while clad in the head-to-toe black robes they are required to wear, with only their eyes exposed.

It features an “honour wall” naming 108 women whom it said have defied the kingdom’s driving ban.

Activists are also encouraging women to post pictures of themselves driving using a Twitter hashtag, #IWillDriveMyself, as well as on Instagram and YouTube.

“This year will be bigger,” one Tweet vowed, following a similar campaign last year.

“We are trying to do something to refresh this demand” that women be allowed to drive, one activist, Nasima al-Sada, told AFP.
“It doesn’t stop,” she said of the national campaign.

“We are asking the ladies to sit behind the wheel and take action” on October 26 “or any day”, Sada said from the kingdom’s Eastern Province, home to most of the country’s oil reserves.

– ‘It’s our right’ –
Saudi Arabia is OPEC’s biggest oil exporter and the country’s economy has been one of the best performing in the Group of 20 leading nations, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Several Saudi women holding corporate CEO and other senior management positions were included in this year’s Forbes list of 200 most powerful Arab women, but they cannot drive in their own country.

Last year, activists also focused their demands on October 26 — which they simply call a “symbolic” date as part of efforts to press for women’s right to drive.

At least 16 were fined for taking the wheel on that day.

Sada said that if women are afraid of such reprisals from authorities, or from the men in their lives, activists hope they could still drive and post their actions, even anonymously.

“We are trying to change women’s thinking,” she said.

“We believe it’s our right… and we don’t want anyone to control our lives”.

Saudi women still need permission from a male guardian to work and marry, while restaurants are divided into “family sections” and separate areas for single men.

The ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic tradition is predominant in the kingdom, where it applies to both religious and political life.

Last November the kingdom’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, said the female driving prohibition protects society from “evil” and should not be a major concern.

Hardline clerics protested when King Abdullah, in January last year, decided to give women a 20 percent quota in the previously all-male Shura Council of 150 members.

The Shura Council is appointed by the king and advises the monarch on policy, but cannot legislate. -AFP

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