June 27, 2011 / 3:33 PM / in 6 years

The veil behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia

<p>Umm Ibrahim sits behind the wheel of her vehicle as she drives in Riyadh, an act that is banned in Saudi Arabia June 21, 2011.Amena Bakr</p>

RIYADH (Reuters Life!) - As Umm Ibrahim takes the wheel of her husband's white Hyundai, beads of sweat form beneath the black veil that covers her face and body.

Nervously turning the ignition, shifting into drive and easing her foot off the brake, she knows she's risking arrest. The simple act of driving for a woman is banned in Saudi Arabia.

"The day I get my driving license, I will open a driving school for women and I'll be one of the instructors, that's my dream," said Umm Ibrahim.

Last week, on the same day the 25 year-old mother of two chose to make a statement by taking her husband's car out for a spin, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly supported "brave" Saudi women demanding the right to drive.

"What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them," Clinton said, responding to a letter sent by activist group Saudi Women for Driving.

She was also careful to stress that it was an issue for Saudis to determine for themselves.

The mutaween -- Saudi Arabia's religious police -- are constantly on the lookout for violators of the kingdom's conservative rules. There is no law explicitly forbidding women from driving but they are not allowed to obtain licenses, making it effectively illegal.

The penalty for those caught is a fine or a short detention.

As the car gains speed on the desert highway, Umm Ibrahim's anxiety appears to vanish and she reveals a secret: she's been driving for years and her husband -- an imam at a mosque -- taught her.

"I've been driving for three years," she says, "My husband taught me, but until now I only drove on the outskirts of town."

Besides a ban on driving, Saudi women are subject to a male "guardianship" system which requires they show permission from their guardian -- father, brother or husband -- to travel undergo certain operations or, sometimes, work.

"We can't be this dependant on men anymore, we want our basic rights and driving is one of them Then we don't want to be accompanied by male guardians all the time," said Umm Ibrahim, as she whizzed past cars driven by glaring men.

Umm Ibrahim is part of a growing movement of women challenging the driving ban, inspired in part by the social upheaval that began earlier this year in the Arab world, resulting in the toppling of the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

Two other Saudi women, Shaima Osama and Manal Alsharif, have been arrested for defying the ban and earlier this month some women responded to a call on the internet for a national day of defiance by taking the wheel and then posting pictures of themselves driving.

"That day was a real challenge, I swear to you the religious police were everywhere like it was some kind of war against women," said divorced mother of two, Aysha Shehri, who hired a Sudanese woman in Jeddah to teach her and her daughters how to drive two years ago.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has replaced hardline clerics with moderate ones and even signaled he was open to the idea of women driving, but progress has been slow. A ban can only be lifted in consultation with top Islamic scholars.

Some analysts believe that the government is willing to lift the ban but would not make an announcement too soon to avoid being seen as coming under pressure.

As Umm Ibrahim stopped and turned off the car's engine, a nearby driver, a man with a long black beard, quickly dialed his mobile phone and reported her car's number plate.

Reflecting how potentially divisive the issue may prove to be, another rolled down his window and congratulated her: "Well done, you park better than I do."

Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Paul Casciato

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