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Middle East

Saudi woman held by police – for driving

Protesters launch internet campaign to urge repeal of law that says only men can be behind the wheel

Authorities detained a Saudi woman yesterday after she launched a campaign against the driving ban for women in the ultra-conservative kingdom and posted a videotape of herself behind the wheel on Facebook and YouTube to encourage others to copy her.

Manal al-Sherif and a group of other women started a Facebook page called "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself", which urges authorities to lift the driving ban. She went on a test drive in the eastern city of Khobar and later posted a video of the experience. "This is a volunteer campaign to help the girls of this country" learn to drive, Ms Sherif says in the video. "At least for times of emergency, God forbid. What if whoever is driving them gets a heart attack?"

Human-rights activist Walid Abou el-Kheir said Ms Sherif was detained by the country's religious police, who are charged with ensuring the kingdom's rigid interpretation of Islamic teachings is observed.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women – both Saudi and foreign – from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor. Women are also barred from voting, except for chamber of commerce elections in two cities in recent years, and no woman can be in the kingdom's cabinet. They cannot travel without permission from a male guardian and shouldn't mingle with males who are not their husbands or brothers.

The campaign – ksawomen2drive – has focused on the importance of women driving in times of emergency, and on low-income families. Ms Sherif said that, unlike the traditional argument in Saudi Arabia that driving exposes women to sinful temptations by allowing them to mingle with policemen and mechanics, women who drive can avoid sexual harassment from their drivers and protect their "dignity".

Via Facebook, the campaigners are calling for a mass drive on 17 June. More than 11,000 people who have viewed the page have indicated they support the call. Dressed in a headscarf and the all-encompassing black abaya that women must wear in public, Ms Sherif extolled the virtues of driving for women, saying it can save lives, and time, as well as a woman's dignity. She said she learned how to drive, aged 30, in New Hampshire. "We are humiliated sometimes because we can't find a taxi to take us to work," she said.

On its Facebook page, the group says women joining the campaign should not challenge authorities if they are stopped and questioned, and should abide by the country's strict dress code. "We want to live as complete citizens, without the humiliation that we are subjected to every day because we are tied to a driver," the Facebook message reads. "We are not here to break the law... we are here to claim one of our simplest rights."