Some Saudi women challenge drive ban

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia Fri Jun 17, 2011 6:00pm EDT

1 of 5. A Saudi woman looks out of her car in Jeddah June 17, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Susan Baaghil

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Some Saudi women appeared to have answered a call over social media to challenge a ban on driving, posting accounts and pictures of themselves behind the wheel in the conservative Arab kingdom.

Groups such as "Women2Drive" and "Women's Right to Drive in KSA" had called for a day of defiance, drawing more than 15,000 supporters on various Facebook groups.

"I drove with my husband, and a policeman stopped me and gave me a ticket, which stated that I was driving without a license," Maha al-Gahtani, a resident of Riyadh, posted on Twitter along with a picture of a traffic ticket with her name.

"I was disappointed that I didn't see any other women drivers," she said. "I did it to get my rights."

Besides a ban on driving, women in Saudi Arabia must have written approval from a male guardian -- a father, husband, brother or son -- to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

Saudi Arabia is ruled by an absolute monarchy which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam. Religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

Two women, Shaima Osama and Manal Alsharif, were recently arrested for defying the driving ban, inspired by challenges to authority across the Arab world.

"I drove around my neighborhood with dad for 20 minutes," Dima Ikhwan posted on her Twitter page on Friday.

One woman in Riyadh posted a video on YouTube showing herself driving soon after midnight, face veiled as she drove to a local supermarket undetected by police.

Reuters could not verify the women's accounts and it was not possible to verify how many women had defied the ban.

Alsharif's arrest last month after she posted a video on YouTube of herself driving appeared to have deterred other women. Released after 10 days in detention, Alsharif distanced herself from the campaign, saying the issue of women driving was best left to the authorities to handle.

"When Alsharif's arrest happened many of the women were intimidated because they do not want to be arrested," said Mariam Alawi, a Jeddah resident with a driving license from the United States who chose not participate in the campaign.

"I think the campaign to defy the driving ban will hinder the process of legalizing women driving in Saudi Arabia because it will just provoke the authorities," Alawi said.

Activist Wajiha al-Huweider argued, however, that the movement would gain steam as more women defy the ban.

"It is not a one-day thing or a demonstration, it is the first day of a movement that will continue until we see a new law to allow women to drive," Huweider said. "Maybe we will see more women in the coming days."

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Alistair Lyon)

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