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Op-Ed: Saudi Arabian women plan protest against driving ban on Oct. 26th

By Ken Hanly     Oct 25, 2013 in Politics
Riyadh - This weekend Saudi women with foreign licences will get behind the wheel starting tomorrow (Oct. 26). The women organizing the protests have posted photos on line of them driving in Saudi cities.
Interior Ministry spokesperson General Mansur al-Turki said: "It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support" of this cause.
Saudi officials have even warned activists on line not to back the protests. Al-Turki said that cyber-laws banning political dissent could very well apply to anyone supporting the women by on line activity. Conviction can carry up to a five-year sentence. The Internet has been key to organizing the protest.
In spite of the fact that there is no explicit law in Saudi Arabia that actually bans Saudi women from driving, the ban is enforced by the powerful Islamic establishment, Even some authorities have pointed out that there is nothing specific in Sharia law that would outlaw women driving: The head of the kingdom’s religious police said last week that the “Islamic sharia does not have a text forbidding women driving."
Sheikh Abdulatif al-Sheikh stressed that since he was appointed as head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice religious police have not pursued or stopped a woman driving.
Indeed, one justification for the ban has nothing at all to do with religion but with alleged health reasons for the ban: Saudi women seeking to challenge a de facto ban on driving should realize that this could affect their ovaries and pelvises, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan, a judicial and psychological consultant to the Gulf Psychological Association, told Saudi news website sabq.org. If this is true surely women should be banned from riding in vehicles as well.
The Interior Ministry has announced that it would crack down on anyone who attempted to disturb public peace by congregating or marching "under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving.” The Interior Ministry insists that "all gatherings are prohibited." However, activists insist that they are not planning demonstrations.
Philip Luther of Amnesty International has urged Saudi authorities to acknowledge a woman's right to drive: "It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car."
The campaign would simply see individual women drive around Saudi cities so there would be no demonstrations or gatherings involved. Since there is nothing explicit in either Saudi Islamic law nor the traffic code that bans female drivers, perhaps the authorities may simply ignore the event.
In the past women who drove were charged with the relatively minor offence of driving without a valid Saudi licence. No licences are issued to women in the kingdom. Others however have been charged with disturbing public peace, a more serious crime. The campaign has been ongoing for decades.
In 1990 authorities stopped 47 women who were driving in a demonstration against the ban. In 2011 Manal al-Sharif a woman activist based in Dubai was arrested and held for nine days simply for posting on line a video with her behind the wheel. Even this year Saudi police have arrested several women who defied the ban and made them sign a pledge not to drive again. Saudi women are required to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, work, or marry.
There are signs that opposition to the ban is becoming more acceptable. Activists claim that they have 16,600 signatures on a petition calling for change. Analysts describe the present campaign as the best organized social campaign ever in Saudi Arabia. An even more encouraging sign is that Saudi newspapers are now posting signed letters that oppose the ban. Dr Thuraya al-Arid wrote: "It's time to end this absurd debate about women driving."
Even three female members of a Shura advisory council, chosen by the 90 year old King Abdullah, spoke out against the ban. The three recommended this month that the ban be rescinded: Latifa al-Shaalan, Haya al-Mani and Muna al-Mashit urged the council to "recognise the rights of women to drive a car in accordance with the principles of sharia [Islamic law] and traffic laws."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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