DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A Saudi woman defiantly drove through her nation’s capital Friday while others brazenly cruised by police patrols in the first forays of a campaign that hopes to ignite a road rebellion against the male-only driving rules in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.
It was a rare grass-roots challenge to the Western-backed Saudi monarchy as it tries to ride out the Arab world’s wave of change, and a lesson in how the uprisings are taking root in different ways. In this case, the driver’s seat was turned into a powerful platform for women’s rights in a country where wives and daughters have almost no political voice.
“We’ve seen that change is possible,” said Maha al-Qahtani, a computer specialist at the Saudi Ministry of Education. She said she drove for 45 minutes around Riyadh, with her husband in the passenger seat. “This is Saudi women saying, ‘This is our time to make a change.’ ”
About 40 women took part in Friday’s show of defiance. No arrests or violence were immediately reported, though al-Qahtani was later ticketed for driving without a license.
But the demonstration could bring difficult choices for the Saudi regime, which so far has escaped major unrest. Officials could order a crackdown on the women, or give way to the demands and risk angering clerics and other conservative groups. It also could encourage wider reform bids by Saudi women.
Saudi Arabia is the only country that bans women from driving. That forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for one must rely on male relatives to drive women to work, school, shopping, or the doctor.
A similar effort by dozens of women two decades ago to defy the ban faltered.
The official start of the latest campaign follows the 10-day detention of Manal al-Sherif, 32, after she posted video of herself driving. She was released after reportedly signing a pledge not to drive again or speak publicly. Her case, however, sparked an outcry from international rights groups.