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Middle East

Saudi Arabia: Women's protest over driving ban kicks off


More than sixty women have gotten behind the wheel of a car and driven today, Saudi activists have claimed, in a show of defiance against a ban on women driving in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The move came after a Saudi woman said she had got into a car earlier today and driven to the grocery store without being stopped or harassed by police.

Saudi professor and campaigner Aziza Youssef said the group has received 13 videos and another 50 phone messages from women showing or claiming they had driven. She said they have no way to verify the messages.

Though no specific Saudi law bans women from driving, women are not issued licenses. Powerful clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the monarchy enforce the ban, warning that breaking it will spread "licentiousness."

In the run-up to the campaign, police warned that anyone disturbing public order would be dealt with forcefully. Ultraconservative clerics also protested earlier in the week against the online petition campaign, which was launched in late September and says it has more than 16,000 signatures. The account's website, oct26driving.org, and official English language YouTube account were hacked on Friday, according to activists.

Activists posted a four minute-long video on the campaign's official Arabic account that they said depicted Al Sawyan driving in Riyadh. She wore sunglasses and her hair was covered by the traditional black headscarf worn by Saudi women, but her face was otherwise visible.

Like other female drivers defying the ban in Saudi Arabia, Al Sawyan said she has obtained a driver's license from abroad.

"I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me," she told The Associated Press by telephone. "There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine ... They are not used to seeing women driving here."

However, Al Sawyan said she was prepared for the risk of detention if caught. She said she was far enough from a police car that she was not spotted.

"I just took a small loop. I didn't drive for a long way, but it was fine. I went to the grocery store," she said.

Her husband and family waited at home and called her nervously when she arrived at the grocery store to check on her, she said. She drove with a local female television reporter in the car. They were both without male relatives in the vehicle.

The campaign for women to drive is a rare show of defiance in the kingdom.

The kingdom's first major driving protest came in 1995. Some 50 women who drove their cars were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. In June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving.