Saudi women driving home a point

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Hackers defaced their website. Delegations of clerics appealed to the king to block their movement. And security officials called their cell phones to leave a clear message:

O, women of the kingdom, do not get behind the wheel!

But they did anyway. On Saturday, a small number of women -- even the main activists were not sure how many -- insisted on violating one of the most stubborn social codes in staunchly conservative Saudi society, getting into their cars and driving. Many posted videos of themselves doing so to spread the word. The Associated Press reported that about 60 women across the kingdom defied social convention and drove.

The public call for women nationwide to drive on Saturday was the latest push in a decades-old effort by a small group of activists to exercise what they see as a fundamental human right. Saudi Arabia, a hereditary monarchy, is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

The fact that the activists have been at it for so long without succeeding in creating a mass movement or any change in government policy underlines the power of tradition in Saudi society and the tremendous political clout of social conservatives who fear that Westernization or anything that looks like it will detract from the kingdom's Islamic character, even though malls, high-end shops and fast-food outlets are noticeable across the Saudi landscape.

Despite the strong opposition, the women believe time is on their side. They point to the huge numbers of Saudis who study and travel abroad and return with new perspectives on their culture. They also point to the kingdom's youthful population and the tremendous rise of social media as factors that over time will make the country more open to change.

But their movement's goal is profoundly modest compared to the Arab Spring calls for overhauls that have toppled some Middle Eastern governments and shaken others. They have gone out of their way to avoid anything that looks like a protest, remain deeply loyal to the 89-year-old King Abdullah, and studiously avoid confrontations with the authorities.

"We don't want to break any laws," said Madiha al-Ajroush, 60, a psychologist who has been campaigning for the right to drive since 1990. "This is not a revolution, and it will not be turned into a revolution."

Instead the women merely seek what is considered an ordinary privilege elsewhere in the world.

"We are looking for a normal way of life, for me to get into my car and do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room," Ms. Ajroush said in an interview in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

When it comes to women's rights, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Guardianship laws mean that a woman cannot marry, work or travel abroad without the consent of a male relative.

Other restrictions are more cultural than legal. No Saudi law explicitly bans women from driving, but the government does not issue licenses to women. Because driving without a license is illegal, the driving campaign restricted itself to women with licenses obtained abroad.

The call for women to drive on Saturday led to an explosion of comments and arguments in Saudi social media.

The Interior Ministry last week warned against all acts that "disturb the social peace and open the door to discord." A new statement Friday threatened punishment for anyone involved in "assemblies and banned demonstrations calling for women to drive cars."

Some opponents pointed out that Oct. 26 was the birthday of Hillary Rodham Clinton, implying a foreign hand in the planning. Last week, hackers broke into the campaign's website, posting insults aimed at a prominent activist and a video in which a man identified as a Zionist calls for women to drive -- implying that Saudi's enemies see this as a way to weaken the kingdom.

Religious figures have also weighed in.

One prominent sheik, Nasser al-Omar, led a delegation of 200 sheiks to the royal court in Jeddah to appeal to the king against "the conspiracy of women driving cars," as he said in a video posted online.

Another cleric, Mohammed al-Nujaimi, described the campaign as a "great danger," saying it would lead to ruined marriages, a low birthrate, the spread of adultery, more car accidents and "the spending of excessive amounts on beauty products."

"The learned have banned women from driving cars because of the political, religious, social and economic problems it entails," Mr. Nujaimi warned in a statement.

Even some who support the right of women to drive say much needs to be done beforehand: women must be taught how to drive, issued licenses and given legal protections from harassment.

On Saturday in Riyadh, there appeared to be more Western journalists riding along with female drivers than women behind the wheel. Ms. Ajroush said she aborted her attempt to drive when she and a friend found themselves followed by two men. They sought refuge in a mall, but the men followed them. She bought a yellow toy car and presented it to the men as a gift, but they stormed off angrily, she said.

Mai Swayan, 32, a mother of two who works at a Riyadh bank, was more successful. Early Saturday, she drove her car to a nearby supermarket, bought some milk and drove home. The trip took about 15 minutes, and no one stopped her.

She said she was not concerned about the low turnout but appreciated the support received by those women who did show up and drive. Not long after her return home, she was still elated by the experience. "I'm so proud of myself right now," she said.

It is not clear if police turned a blind eye to women driving or simply did not see the scattered, quick spins around towns. An Associated Press journalist in Riyadh said there were no roadblocks or checkpoints set up to watch for female drivers. He saw only a few law enforcement vehicles on the road.

A security official said authorities did not arrest or fine any female drivers on Saturday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Saturday's campaign is in stark contrast the kingdom's first major driving protest in 1990, which saw 50 women arrested. They ultimately had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs.

In June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. Later another woman driver was arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes, but King Abdullah overturned the sentence.

Associated Press contributed.

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