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Middle East

Drive to get Saudi women on the road: The kingdom holds the world's only ban on female motorists

Campaigners defied country's rulers in a day of action that is as much about women's rights as about getting from A to B

For the Saudi women who got behind the wheel yesterday, their actions were not a protest. Instead, by defying warnings that they would be arrested for daring to drive in a kingdom ruled by a few hardline clerics, some 60 women hoped to prove the concept of female drivers could be viewed as "normal".

Officials had warned last week that any women who were caught driving yesterday would be arrested, and added that even online support could lead to arrests. The kingdom holds the world's only ban on female drivers.

Aziza Al Yousef was a passenger with her male guardian driving when she spoke to The Independent on Sunday yesterday, as she claimed she was being followed by a "mysterious car".

"Today is a regular day; we are just trying to normalise seeing a lady driving," said the computer science lecturer at King Saud University and an initiator of the campaign. "We will carry on driving until we get a decree from the king overturning the ban."

Despite King Abdullah expanding the rights of women in the world's biggest oil exporter, reform has not come as quickly as many would have liked. The king, who faces opposition from traditionalist clerics and their followers, has opened the first Saudi co-educational university, and said women can vote and run in municipal elections from 2015. But the driving ban remains in force.

The fear of arrest and imprisonment deterred many women besides Ms Yousef from driving yesterday. They included Tamador Alyami, a Jeddah-based blogger. "I have driven my car three times in the past few weeks, but I felt intimidated," she said. "I have two kids, aged one and eight who need a mother."

It is not the first time people in Saudi Arabia have pushed for the right for women to drive. In 1990, authorities reportedly stopped 47 women who were driving, and many of them subsequently went into isolation for their own safety. Two years ago, dozens of women took part in a similar campaign, posting photos and videos on social networking sites of themselves driving.

The extent to which authorities tried to stop yesterday's campaign was demonstrated by the threats against people who supported it online, where some 16,000 people had signed a petition calling for reform. The Saudi interior ministry spokesman Turki al-Faisal reportedly said that cyber-laws banning political dissent could apply and result in prison sentences of up to five years.

Ms Alyami added: "Those people who are against this campaign are holding Saudi Arabia back from the entire world. I want to be able to drive before I die. I'm calling on men to think for themselves, not to simply follow clerics, and for the government to act. If it issues the decree, society will accept it."

"There has been a groundswell since 2011 in the number of women – and men – coming out to support the right for women to drive," said Zaki Safar, one of the growing number of men to campaign for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. "Our generation is a little more open to change than the previous one," the 29-year-old electrical engineer said. "Men are teaching their wives to drive – it is very heartening to see. I can see our campaign succeeding, if not this time, then next."