Saudi women in silent walking protest over right to drive in the Kingdom

Activism gathers momentum as Theresa May visits country where women were banned from driving in 1957

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The Independent Online

Women campaigners in Saudi Arabia have filmed themselves silently walking in the street without male companions as part of their fight for the right to drive.

The campaign is part of a growing protest against sweeping restrictions which prevent women from doing everyday activities unless they are accompanied by a male guardian.

Prime Minister Theresa May has been urged to address human rights abuses including the oppression of women during her visit to the deeply conservative Islamic kingdom, which comes as part of a Government bid to secure post-Brexit trade deals. 

She said she hopes to be seen as a “role model” for women there and met the country’s crown prince without wearing a head scarf, eschewing sharia law’s strict dress code.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving under its strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Interior Ministry strictly enforces the ban, which came into effect in 1957.

The silent footage of the women carries the hashtag #resistancebywalking on social media.

Campaign organiser Mariam Alhubail said on Twitter where she uses the handle @ms_freespeech: “We want to encourage women to go out alone for a walk or to do their daily tasks and reject the idea men take care of these tasks.”

She added: “I walk alone. Until we have the streets again.”

“They don’t mind me crossing the streets on foot. What matters to them is that I shouldn’t drive and that I don’t become my own guardian,” another Saudi woman said on Twitter.

Under the strict Saudi interpretation of Islamic law, women are forbidden from travelling, conducting official business such as opening bank accounts or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. 

Women are also required to have a man swear on their behalf that their evidence is truthful if they appear in court.

They are barred from wearing clothes or make-up that “show off their beauty”, so most cover up with a long cloak and head scarf. The face does not necessarily need to be covered, although there are hardliners who would prefer to insist on the full veil.

Women are required to restrict the amount of time they spend with men to whom they are not related and the majority of public buildings, including universities, offices and banks, have separate entrances for males and females.

Public transport, parks and beaches are also segregated in most parts of the country and unlawful mixing can lead to criminal charges.

Women are not allowed to try on clothes in shops, according to Vanity Fair writer Maureen Dowd, who wrote in A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia: “The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle.”

The country’s most influential advisory council last year refused to even examine the possibility of allowing women to drive in spite of a growing clamour from protesters, partly motivated by the Arab Spring of 2011.

Thousands of women have signed a petition calling on the Saudi Government to end the guardianship system.

Saudi activist and author Wajjeha al-Huwaider has spearheaded the right to drive campaign in the country and was arrested after filming herself driving on international women’s day in 2008.

Speaking in Jordan, Ms May defended her visit to Saudi Arabia, which has faced international condemnation for its human rights abuses including its oppression of women.

“It's important for me as a woman leader and as leader of the Government of the United Kingdom to maintain the relationships that are important to us as a country, for our security, and our trade for the future.

"But I hope also that people see me as a woman leader, will see what women can achieve and how women can be in significant positions."

The Prime Minister claimed there had “already been some changes” in relation to women’s rights and representation in the country and highlighted that during her trip she would be meeting a female minister who she would talk to about the role she and other Saudi women play in society.

“I've talked to the Saudis on a number of occasions now and I raise issues of this sort. I think we have already seen some changes,” Ms May said.

”One of the meetings I'm going to be having when I'm in Saudi will be with a female, they have a minister who is a female minister. I'll be meeting with her and talking to her about the role that she plays, and generally we do encourage people to look at a woman's role in society.”

Ms May was on Wednesday set to meet King Salman to sign the UK up to a new partnership deal known as 2030 to boost economic ties with the country.

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