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(New York) – Saudi authorities should end the country’s driving ban for women as the “Women2Drive” campaign gathers momentum, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi women’s rights activists have called on women with international drivers’ licenses to get behind the wheel on October 26, 2013, as part of the “Women2Drive” campaign to end the prohibition on driving.

“It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is still barring women from driving,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s past time to address the country’s systemic discrimination; driving could open roads to reform.”

In recent months, women have defied the ban and published online videos of themselves driving the kingdom’s roads, including footage showing Saudi men driving by and giving the thumbs-up sign to show their support. The Ministry of Interior has issued a statement saying that officials will enforce the law on October 26.

The informal prohibition on female driving in Saudi Arabia became official state policy in 1990. During the Gulf War, Saudi women saw female American soldiers driving on military bases in their country, and organized a protest. Dozens of Saudi women drove the streets of Riyadh in a convoy to protest the restriction. In response, officials arrested them, suspended them from their jobs, and the Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious authority, immediately declared a fatwa, or religious edict, against women driving, stating that driving would expose women to “temptation” and lead to “social chaos.” Then-Minister of Interior Prince Nayef banned women’s driving by decree on the basis of the fatwa.

The “Women2Drive” campaign has used social media to raise awareness and encourage female drivers to take to the roads. On October 10, police stopped and detained two women in a car, including prominent blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who was filming the other woman driving. Officials released them the same day, after they signed a pledge not to repeat their actions. Their male “guardians” – the Saudi system requires a father, husband, or even a son to take legal responsibility for every woman – also signed a pledge that the women would not drive.

The campaign has also reignited public debate on female driving. The head of the religious police stated in September that Sharia, or Islamic law, has no text forbidding women from driving. A cleric’s claim that “driving affects women’s ovaries” was met with widespread mockery by Saudis on Twitter. In October, three women members of the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king, called for the traffic committee to look into lifting the ban, but other members of the council rejected the recommendation, saying the traffic committee had no authority to launch such an investigation.

The conservative religious opposition
Many within Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment continue to oppose allowing women the right to drive, arguing that it would undermine social values. On October 22, more than 100 clerics visited the Royal Court, the office of the king, to protest “the conspiracy of women driving.”

On October 23, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that laws will be fully enforced on October 26, in response to news on social media networks of possible protests and marches during the day of women driving. It is unclear whether this is directed at women who may drive that day or, as some commentators have argued, at people considering using the day as an opportunity to protest on other issues, such as the detentions of their relatives. The Ministry of Interior has issued such arbitrary warnings in advance of previous planned protests, which are banned, in the kingdom.

On October 24, Saudi activists confirmed that a man who claimed to be from the Ministry of Interior individually phoned women activists behind the “Women2Drive” campaign, warning them not to drive on October 26. He told them that measures will be taken against all women why defy the driving ban, and that women caught driving could be taken into custody.

Saudi Arabia has recently made several advances on women’s rights in other areas. In September 2011, King Abdullah decreed that women would be able to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, next due in 2015, and women could become members of the Shura Council. In January 2013, he appointed 30 women among 150 Shura Council members. In September 2013, authorities passed a law that for the first time criminalized domestic violence.

Saudi women’s courage in face of discrimination
Despite these advances, Saudi women continue to face pervasive, systematic state discrimination in their daily lives. The male guardianship system treats them as legal minors, who cannot conduct official government business, travel abroad, marry, pursue higher education, or undergo certain medical procedures without permission from men. Women cannot protest or establish independent organizations to address women’s rights, as the kingdom bans protest and does not permit nongovernmental human rights organizations to operate freely.

Driving has become a symbol of change for Saudi women. On the 2008 International Women’s Day, March 8, Wajeha al-Huwaider uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia. That same year, al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni founded an unregistered NGO called the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and submitted a petition to King Abdullah calling for the reversal of the ban. These two leading activists currently face imprisonment for trying to help a woman who said that her husband had locked her and her children in their home without food or water.

When women activists launched the “Women2Drive” campaign in 2011, scores of women drove, but traffic police stopped many of them and forced their male guardians to sign a pledge that they would not allow the women to drive again. The Jeddah Criminal Court sentenced one woman to 10 lashes; but the sentence was later overturned. A Jeddah administrative court dismissed one legal challenge to the refusal of the Ministry of Interior to grant women drivers’ licenses, though no traffic or other regulation limits granting licenses to men. The court said that the decision fell outside of the jurisdiction of the court system and transferred it to an administrative inquiry by a committee at the Ministry of Interior. The results of the investigation have not yet been announced.

Because of the ban, women often rely on male relatives or foreign drivers to convey them to work, school, and other activities. Saudi women have complained that the cost of hiring foreign drivers to take them to work eats up much of their salaries. Women who cannot afford to hire a driver must sometimes forego work and other activities outside the home. The fatwa on the driving ban cited the goal of preventing women from committing acts of khilwa – spending time in a secluded space with an unrelated man – but ironically, because of the ban, women often resort to taking taxis chauffeured by strangers or hiring male drivers, often foreign nationals.

The Saudi government has ratified the United Nations Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires the government to treat women equally and not enforce a discriminatory policy. On October 21, 2013, during a periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the head of the governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission asserted that Saudi women do not face systemic discrimination in the kingdom. His statement contrasted with Saudi authorities’ promises in 2009 to the Human Rights Council to abolish the male guardianship system in accordance with the commitments that it has undertaken under CEDAW. Saudi Arabia is to make a bid for a three-year seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in November 2013.

“In 2005 King Abdullah came to power and said that he believed the day would come when women would drive,” said Begum. “Eight years later, the time for excuses is over.”

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