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.”
Like Alsharif, Osama learned to drive in the United States.
“The issue of women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia has been in the public domain for more than 35 years,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi politics professor.
“This is not the first time women had driven cars but you could say that the revolutionary wave has added to momentum and added a new context.”
Women also drove cars in 1990, but the government cracked down, arresting and firing from their jobs, an indication of what the authorities may do if more women follow in Osama and Alsharif’s footsteps.
The issue has also been raised by King Abdullah, who in an interview in 2005 said it was only a matter of time before women drive in the kingdom but that people have to be ready for it.
Some women already drive in rural areas in the kingdom.
The two women and Facebook book groups are provoking a backlash from conservatives who oppose the idea of women seeking greater freedoms in a country where they must have written approval from a designated male guardian -- a father, husband, brother, or son -- to work, travel abroad and even undergo certain forms of surgery.
Conservatives have launched their own Facebook campaign calling on people to beat up any woman who tries to drive in the street. It has attracted more than 500 supporters.
Some 1,000 women have submitted a petition to King Abdullah supporting the ban against women driving, local media reported.
Saudi Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obaikan, an adviser to the Royal Court, voiced his opposition while clerics have said that women driving would result in them being harassed in the street.
But the reasons appear to have more to do with religion.
“The religious establishment are trying to wrap the issue in the ”sharia cloth“ but they know that if women are allowed to drive it is a big change and a change in a direction they hate,” Dakhil said. “The religious establishment are scared that society is changing faster that it should and that the revolutionary wave is driving this.”
Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has not seen the protests that have rocked much of the Arab world and Abdullah ordered handouts exceeding $100 billion earlier this year to discourage dissent.
“It was a good time for the regime to give concessions but they did not,” said Mohammad al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.
“They can either allow women to drive or there will be more public resentment and there could be public protests in the street if this continues.”
But allowing women to drive would also ease the financial burden on households and on the kingdom and would help reduce the kingdom’s dependence on millions of foreigners who work as drivers.
Many families in Saudi Arabia have at least one driver with an average salary of around 2,000 Saudi riyals ($533) per month. Those who cannot afford this have a male member of family to drive them, often making it a time-consuming burden.
“I do agree with women driving. It would ease costs but there need to be some rules,” said student Talal al-Hussain.
“Women shouldn’t drive from 18 years of age like we do, but from their early thirties when they can look after themselves better,” he said.
Whether protesting in the street or not, Alsharif has launched a campaign to challenge the ban aimed at teaching women to drive and encouraging them to start driving from June 17, using foreign-issued licenses.
Some women activists say the government’s tough stance on Alsharif will deter many women from acting that day.
“What I project to happen is that these terrorizing tactics will minimize the bold activists to a manageable number so that the government is capable of dismantling any and all protests in the first 15 minutes,” said female activist Lama Sadik.
Mohammad al-Zulfa, a former member of the advisory shuran council said he hoped the government would react “wisely” and make an announcement allowing women to drive.
“Maybe not now, but in one or two years time, allowing society to be ready for it,” he said.
($1=3.750 Saudi Arabian Riyal)
Editing by Reed Stevenson