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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - October 26, 2013

by Abeer Allam in Abu Dhabi

It was supposed to be different this time.

By using social media websites, posting videos of themselves driving on YouTube and setting up an online petition, Saudi women planned well for a campaign on October 26 to challenge the ban on women driving.

Emboldened by a nod and a wink from Saudi officials, including press reports that the feared religious police, or mutawa, were warned against arresting women who drive, over 16,000 men and women signed the online petition to oppose the ban, which is not enshrined in law.

But hours after 150 conservative clerics went to the royal court asking the king to stop what they called ”westernisation of women’’ through the ”plot” of women driving, the Saudi interior ministry, issued a surprise statement on Wednesday warning against violating the laws of the country regarding driving and “congregations and marches under the pretext of an alleged day of women driving”.

To reinforce the message, representatives from the interior ministry called key women organisers the following day to warn them against driving.

It is unclear whether the women will go ahead with the event.

At first glance, the episode could reflect business as usual in the conservative kingdom, which traditionally sides with the views of radical clerics. But Saudi insiders said the sheer size of the response from women and men in support of the campaign – and the possibility it could provoke counter protests on the street – panicked the interior ministry into changing its initial tacit support of the movement.

“The state was neutral, they wanted women to go ahead that day without giving them clear approval or disapproval,’’ said Abdelaziz al-Qassem, a well-connected Saudi reformist. “But the campaign was way too successful and got the conservatives annoyed. Women are backing off now to avoid confrontation with them in the street.’’

Saudi Arabia has often said that there are no religious reasons why women cannot drive but has insisted that it cannot impose change from above if society is not ready. Sporadic campaigns in support of women drivers were intended to spark public debate and get people used to seeing women behind the wheel.

But some Saudis point out that in a country that bans most political activities and professional unions, and has a shura (consultative) council that is handpicked by the king, empowering a group to take their rights through popular pressure, even if encouraged by the government, could give ideas to others.

“The government is terrified to see people imposing their will,” said Hala al-Dosary, a woman activist and blogger. “Families of some political prisoners said on Twitter that they will also go out [on the day of the driving campaign] and use the media attention to pressure for their relatives’ release. The government does not want that.’’

Unlike a similar campaign at the height of the Arab uprisings two years ago, the organisers took care to avoid driving on a Friday, the day that has been associated with street protests that toppled Arab regimes and which is also the day of the congregational prayer, after which large numbers of conservatives leaving mosques might act against them.

The organisers urged women to simply drive their own cars when running their errands as they would on a normal week day, reiterating that this was not a protest.

Despite this, the government would not take any risk. Although many Saudis put this down to the al-Saud’s fear of provoking the religious establishment, the royals have shown that they will ignore the clerics when it suits them.

Conservative sheikhs protested earlier this year when King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the shura council; they threatened the minister of labour and protested inside the ministry against appointing women to work in lingerie shops and grocery stores; and they objected to the unprecedented mixing of sexes at the co-ed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology which was opened in 2009 near Jeddah. But in all these cases the state stood its ground.

“I don’t think the government is against women driving, but no one knows when they will allow them to drive,’’ said Essam al-Zamil, a blogger and an entrepreneur. “However, I know for sure that they don’t want to do it under popular pressure.”

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