Saudi Women Continue Push to Lift Driving Ban

Campaigners for women driving in Saudi Arabia continue their push for lifting the decades old ban despite mixed reactions to a planned day of protest that fell exactly two weeks ago.

If you ask supporters of the campaign, they will tell you that October 26 was a success. The story dominated the headlines for days and some women drove despite the government warning. Women will keep on driving, they say.

If you ask opponents of the campaign, they will tell you that it was a failure. The campaign prompted the government to come out with a strong statement reaffirming the longstanding ban. The number of women who drove was embarrassingly small, they say.

Probably the most interesting outcome of the campaign was the decision of the Ministry of Interior to take a clear position on the matter. After years of vague statements by Saudi officials who emphasized that driving is a social issue and laws in the country do not ban it, spokesman Mansour al-Turki was forced to explicitly announce that they do not allow women to drive.

“It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support,” he told AFP on October 24.

The Interior Ministry also placed phone calls to leading women activists warning them against getting behind the wheel, a warning that was not enough to deter some of them who went ahead and drove anyway. Columnist Tariq Almubarak, a male supporter of women driving, was detained for a week as authorities investigated his links to the campaign.

While the government now-explicit ban may have caused dejection to some activists, it can also be seen as a gain for the cause. Saudi officials can no longer deflect the blame for the driving ban to society when the Ministry of Interior made it clear that they are responsible for enforcing the ban. Campaigners are likely now to focus their effort on changing the government’s position instead of spending time trying to convince observers that society is not against lifting the ban.

This has already started. Several women have tried to send cables to King Abdullah about driving. However, that effort again appears to be hindered by the Ministry of Interior. In one audio recording obtained by Riyadh Bureau, a woman who wants the driving ban lifted is told her message cannot be delivered to the King.

“We have received instructions not to deliver cables on this matter,” the man on the line told the female caller. When she asked why, he replied: “a directive from the Ministry of Interior.”

The demand to end the ban was also included in a petition signed by 14 women rights activists and sent this week to the female members of the Shoura Council, an advisory body that serves as a quasi-parliament. All members of the Council are appointed by the King. The activists asked the councilwomen to tackle issues like male guardianship and discrimination.

“It is clear that women suffer from injustice and subjugation due to the absence of laws that protect them and give them their rights,” the petition said. “In some cases, written and documented laws reinforce discrimination against women which send them to the dark ages.”

The female members of the Shoura Council remain careful about pushing women issues in the chamber that was a men-only club until the beginning of this year. Earlier last month 3 councilwomen introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving, but they stressed at the time that this has nothing to do with the campaign started by activists.

Meanwhile, some activists continue to drive in different cities around the Kingdom in the hope that this would normalize the act and make government and society accept it as a reality. A video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday showed a lady named Azzah al-Shamasi smiling as she drove on some side streets in the capital Riyadh to the tunes of a nationalistic song.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. While international human rights organizations have urged the government to lift the ban, authorities do not appear under high pressure take that step. Speaking in Riyadh earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said they have no intention to push their Gulf ally on that issue.

“It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events,” he said.