Saudi women take to their cars hoping for change

Thu Jun 9, 2011 4:24am EDT
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By Asma Alsharif and Jason Benham

JEDDAH/RIYADH (Reuters) - Fed up with having no driver to ferry her to hospital, Shaima Osama decided to take matters into her own hands and drive there herself, an act of defiance in a country where women are banned from sitting behind the wheel.

Emboldened by the winds of change sweeping the Arab world, which has toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, women in the conservative kingdom see no better time to seek greater freedoms by demanding the right to drive, something they would not have dreamed of doing a year ago.

"I learned that there is no law banning women driving. I took the keys, took a deep breath and started the car," Osama described how she drove in Jeddah last month.

Saudi Arabia has no written ban on women driving but Saudi law requires citizens to use a locally issued license while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, making it effectively illegal for them to drive.

Thousands of Saudi men and women joined Facebook groups calling for women's right to drive and challenge the ban. But only a few, like Osama, turned those calls into action.

Osama, 33, who has a severe vitamin D deficiency, drove herself to the hospital, received her vitamin injection but was stopped and arrested by police on her way home. She was released just hours later.

She took to the wheel just days before Saudi authorities arrested another woman, Manal Alsharif, who posted a YouTube video of herself driving in the kingdom's Eastern Province and calling on other women to do the same.

Alsharif has been released but faces charges of "besmirching the kingdom's reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion."   Continued...

<p>Cars travel along King Fahad main road in Riyadh February 21, 2011. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed</p>