Saudi women campaign online to end driving ban

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(CNN) — Women who want the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to lift a de facto ban that prohibits them from driving have launched an online campaign urging Saudi females to stage a demonstration by driving cars on October 26.

“There is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so,” reads part of an online petition on the Oct26driving.com website. Since Saturday, it has garnered close to 11,000 signatures.

No traffic law specifically prohibits females from driving in Saudi Arabia, but religious edicts there are often interpreted to mean women are not allowed to operate a vehicle.

One of the first to sign the petition was Mai al-Swayan, an economic researcher who told CNN she definitely plans to drive that day. “I will simply use my car to drive to my normal destination … driving the kids to the mall or family visits, or even grocery shopping.”

Al-Swayan, a Saudi woman who drove a car when she lived in the United States, said she sees no reason why she shouldn’t be able to drive in her home country as well.

“I am a capable woman,” she explained, “and this ban is a clear violation of my rights.”

The issue of women driving in the conservative kingdom has long been a contentious one. And while such demonstrations are extremely rare, they have been staged at least twice before.

In May 2011, prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested after uploading a video to YouTube that showed her driving in Saudi Arabia. She spent more than a week in jail and quickly became a hero to numerous women in her country and across the Middle East.

It was a sign of just how influential she had grown that on June 17, 2011, dozens of women across Saudi Arabia, emboldened and inspired by al-Sharif’s ordeal, participated in the “Women2Drive” campaign by getting behind the wheel, defying the ban, and driving throughout the streets of their cities.

In 1991, a group of 47 women protested the prohibition by driving through the country’s capital city, Riyadh. After being arrested, many were further punished by being banned from travel and suspended from their workplaces.

A video posted on the October 26 Movement website shows Lujaina al-Hathloul, a Saudi student in Canada, referencing the two previous incidents as she implores her countrywomen to take to the streets.

“If you didn’t get the chance to participate in 1991 or 2011, here’s your new chance — on October 26, 2013,” al-Hathloul said in her video. “I hope that a huge number of girls take part this time.”

In addition to prohibiting driving, the country’s strict and compulsory guardianship system also prevents women from opening bank accounts, working, traveling and going to school without the express permission of their male guardian.

Saudi Arabia has been moving toward change under its current ruler, King Abdullah, who is considered a cautious reformer and proponent of women’s rights. In January, he appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the first time women had been chosen for the country’s top consultative body. In 2011, he announced that women can run for office and vote in local elections in 2015, and in 2009, he appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female deputy minister.

All the steps were hailed as significant, but many female rights activists say progress still hasn’t come fast enough.

The new petition asks the Saudi government to present “to the citizens a valid and legal justification” for the ban, demanding authorities should not simply blame it on “societal consensus.”

Al-Swayan hopes the demonstration will works this time and that Saudi women will finally gain the right to drive. If it doesn’t, she said, she won’t give up.

“I won’t stop demanding that right over and over again,” she said.

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