Two weeks ago, at least 42 Saudi Arabian women took to the streets by driving in a number of cities. While Saudi Arabia does not have a written law banning women to drive, women are forbidden to do so under a fatwa or religious edict issued by senior clerics following Wahhabism, a strict brand of Sunni Islam. Women have since been driving in the capital of Riyadh and other cities in defiance of the ban. But on Tuesday, five women were detained as they drove in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea Coast, according to rights activist Eman al-Nafjan.
According to the New York Times, the four women, ages 21 and 22, were riding in one car. After being arrested by the religious police, they were taken to a police station where they signed a pledge not to drive again just as Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi women whose arrest and imprisonment sparked the campaign to overturn the driving ban, was forced to sign a pledge not to drive again or to speak to reporters before she was freed.
The fifth woman was arrested separately on Tuesday night while driving in the neighborhood of Suleimaniyah.
As Nafjian said in the Guardian:
“This is the first big pushback from authorities it seems. We aren’t sure what it means at this point and whether this is the start of a harder line by the government against the campaign.”
Saudi Women for Driving, described by the New York Times as an “informal coalition of leading Saudi women’s rights activists, bloggers and academics,” said that “these arrests will encourage more women to get behind the wheel in direct defiance of this ridiculous abuse of our most basic human rights.” Citing the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as an inspiration, Saudi Women for Driving has called for “high-level western backing” and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and female leaders in Europe have indeed expressed their support for the campaign.
However, Clinton’s support of the campaign could put her and the Obama administration in a “delicate position,” as Saudi Arabia is a close US ally and the US is “increasingly reliant on Saudi authorities to provide stability and continuity in the Middle East and Gulf amid uprisings taking place across the Arab world.” Clinton herself has said that the Saudi women drivers “are acting on behalf of their own rights and not at the behest of outsiders like herself.” Again the question arises: How far can or will the US stick out its neck in supporting pro-democracy movements in Arab countries, while maneuvering to protect its own interests?
Go to #Women2Drive Twitter feed for more updates about the campaign to lift the ban on women driving i Saudi Arabia.
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