Saudis jump on board campaign to get women behind wheel

The urban streets of Jeddah flash by as Tamador Alyami - a Saudi blogger and activist - steers her car through the busy weekday traffic.

The urban streets of Jeddah flash by as Tamador Alyami - a Saudi blogger and activist - steers her car through the busy weekday traffic.

Alyami's act of defiance, along with those of many other women, not only challenges the law in Saudi Arabia that prohibits women from being issued driver's licences but also the kingdom's conservative clerics, who have predicted all kinds of doom should women be allowed to get behind the wheel.

Just one month ago, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, warned "medical studies show that it [driving] automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards".

"That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees," he told the website sabq.org.

Despite the warnings, Alyami says her three trips around the Red Sea city of Jeddah have gone smoothly. "They are warning all the time that we are going to be harassed or raped - instead it became obvious to me that this is just another tactic to stop women from driving."

The 34-year-old mother of two says when the campaign for Saudi women to be allowed to drive intensified two years ago she did not imagine she would soon be one of those activists driving and posting videos of her trips on YouTube and Twitter.

"My family were very surprised that I would have the courage to go out and drive and defy the ban - I always said I would never do something that crazy because I have kids and I was afraid what would happen if I was taken away ... " she says. "In the previous campaign female drivers were detained and arrested for 10 days at a time, another was sentenced to lashes. This time it is different - they were released after signing a pledge to not drive again."

Such is the support for the campaign within Alyami's family that her husband of nine years proudly retweeted the video of her driving, and received a barrage of text messages in support from his friends, many of whom commented on her courage.

It was a different world in May 2011, when Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested and spent more than a week in jail after uploading a video to YouTube that showed her driving in Saudi Arabia. The 2011 protests followed similar actions a decade before, when a group of more than 40 women defied the ban and drove through the capital, Riyadh. Along with being arrested, many were also punished with travel and workplace bans.

The government's reaction this time around has been more muted - it has allowed open discussion of the Women2Drive campaign and there have been few arrests of those women who are driving and promoting their activism, she says.

Like many Saudi women, Alyami learnt to drive overseas and has twice held a US driver's licence. She took a refresher course earlier this year as she has little time to practise driving in her home country. She hopes all that will change with the campaign of October 26, when Saudi women who are able to drive are being encouraged to get behind the wheel and take a journey they need to take - such as driving their children to school, going to work or running errands. "There are a lot of signs this time that the government is supporting us," she says. "The king did say earlier that it is a choice for the society and that is what we are trying to do now - we are taking matters into our own hands to say that we are members of society, that we want to drive and that we are capable of driving."

The Saudi Arabia interior ministry however warned this week that any attempts to "disturb public peace" by congregating or marching "under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving" would be firmly dealt with.

But it is not just women fighting for the right to drive. There is a significant groundswell of support from men who are also frustrated by the constraints placed on their female relatives - and therefore themselves - by the ban on women driving. One young man involved in the campaign, Zaki Safar, says the women in his family have to plan out each day in advance in order to be able to get to their various appointments. His family, like many in Saudi Arabia, employ a foreign driver to make the journey. Those women who cannot share the costs of a driver - about 2000 riyals ($551) - lose much of their 3000 riyals ($827) per month salary to this unnecessary expense, he says.

"Can you imagine that?" he says. "Two-thirds of their salaries going to waste simply because a male chauvinist society frowns upon their right to drive? This predicament has unfortunately forced a great number of females in the workforce to ... quit their jobs and stay at home." The next stage of the campaign is to demand rights for women at home, court and work, Safar says. "We will press for rights to protect women from domestic abuse. We will demand rights for divorced women ... and protection of under-age girls from marriage."

But the first step? Getting behind the wheel.

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