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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Right To Drive

For the first time since a demonstration in 1990, a group of Saudi women is campaigning for the right to drive in this conservative kingdom, the only country in the world that prohibits female drivers.

After spreading the idea through text messages and e-mails, the group's leaders said they collected more than 1,100 signatures online and at shopping malls for a petition sent to King Abdullah on Sunday.

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"We don't expect an answer right away," said Wajeha al-Huwaider, 45, an education analyst who co-founded the group. "But we will not stop campaigning until we get the right to drive."

The kingdom follows one of the world's strictest interpretations of Islam. Women in Saudi Arabia, a deeply patriarchal society, cannot travel, marry or rent lodging without permission from a male guardian.

Powerful clerics in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, say that allowing women to drive would lead to Western-style freedoms and an erosion of traditional values.

The driving ban applies to all women, Saudi and foreign.

Public transportation is limited, and though taxis are common in major cities, women tend not to use them because riding with male strangers is deemed unsafe.

Some women can afford to hire live-in drivers; others rely on male relatives to drive them.

Though live-in chauffeurs are all male, they are not viewed as a threat because they are foreigners, often from the Philippines or the Indian subcontinent, and are considered unlikely to develop relationships with the women.

Many women reject this argument. "Women and their children are at the mercy of sexual harassment by these foreign drivers, and we know many incidents of this happening," said Fouzia al-Ayouni, a retired school administrator. "It is much safer, and more appropriate, for women to chauffeur themselves and their children around."

When she was first married, Ayouni recalled, her baby became ill one night. Her husband, a democracy advocate, was in jail, so she went out into the street at 2 a.m., holding the sick child and trying to find a ride to the hospital. She finally reached a brother-in-law, who drove her to the emergency room.

The last time Saudi women lobbied for the right to drive was in 1990 during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Forty-seven women were briefly detained for driving in a convoy of 15 cars in the capital, Riyadh. The women were banned from traveling, lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families and acquaintances.
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