Saudi Arabia: Tomorrow's women drivers protest must be allowed to proceed

The Saudi Arabian authorities must respect the right of women to drive during tomorrow’s planned protest against the country’s notorious ban on women drivers.

‘It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car’
Philip Luther, Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director

The women-led “26 October” driving campaign is urging the Saudi government to issue a decree lifting the country’s ban on women drivers. As part of the campaign, scores of women have already taken to the streets, having themselves filmed whilst driving and uploading videos onto YouTube.

'This is a natural right for us, a most simple and basic right, it relates to our freedom of movement. [The right to drive] will empower women and give us a sense of control over our lives.'
One female activist involved in the campaign speaking to Amnesty

Some women have already been arrested. On 10 October Eman al-Nafjan was stopped by police in Riyadh while filming another woman - Azza - as she was driving. The two women were arrested and taken to Ulaya police station where they were made to sign pledges not to commit the 'offence' again. Eman has written a blog post ahead of the Saturday protest in which she rails against widespread “government patriarchy” in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week the Saudi Ministry of Interior warned that it would respond “firmly and with force” if campaigners press ahead with their plans to challenge the ban tomorrow.

'It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car.

'The driving ban is inherently discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately. It is completely unacceptable for the authorities to stand in the way of activists planning to campaign against it.

'Instead of repressing the initiative, the authorities must immediately lift the ban to ensure that women are never again arrested or punished simply for being behind the wheel of a car.'
Philip Luther

The 26 October campaign comes in the same week that representatives of the Saudi Arabian delegation to the UN’s Human Rights Council repeatedly asserted that the country’s laws do not discriminate against women. A female member of the delegation - who is also a member of the Shura Council’s Human Rights committee - even said that 'the system in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not make distinctions between men and women'.
 
In reality Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are prevented from driving. Although there is no official law banning women from driving, a 1990 ministerial decree formalised an existing customary ban and women who attempt to drive face arrest. At present Saudi women are dependent on men to carry out simple daily tasks requiring transport. Lifting the ban would - amongst other things - allow women to drive to work or university, and enable mothers to take their children to schools.

Background on the ban:

Women in Saudi Arabia have been seeking to have the driving ban lifted since 1990, when around 40 women drove their cars down a main road in the capital Riyadh. They were stopped by police and a number were suspended from work. The women were widely condemned in religious sermons and the then Grand Mufti - Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority - issued a fatwa against women driving. This was followed by a formal directive along the same lines from the Minister of Interior.

In 2011 women activists re-launched an internet campaign calling on women with international driver’s licences to take to the roads in defiance of the ban. Scores of women got behind the wheel to support the campaign. Some were arrested as a result and were made to sign pledges that they would refrain from driving in future. In September 2011 one female driver was tried and sentenced to ten lashes; her sentence was eventually overturned in April 2012.

Wider background on discrimination against women:

The driving ban is just one of the many ways in which women in Saudi Arabia are denied fundamental rights. Despite a few limited advances in recent years, women face severe discrimination in law and practice, and are inadequately protected against domestic and other gender-based violence.

Discriminatory rules relating to marriage and divorce mean women are sometimes trapped in violent and abusive relationships. In August a new law criminalising domestic abuse was issued in Saudi Arabia for the first time. However, it remains unclear how women are supposed to report domestic abuse given various restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Saudi Arabia’s widespread guardianship system requires women to obtain the permission of a male guardian in order to marry, travel to most countries, undergo certain types of surgery, undertake paid employment or enrol in higher education.

As a result of these restrictions and because of the limited number of professions deemed socially suitable for women, many Saudi women find it difficult to obtain work, despite an increase in the number of women receiving higher education.

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