Saudi Women Go For A Spin In Latest Challenge To Driving Ban
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to Saudi Arabia where activists are challenging the kingdom's longstanding ban on women driving. Some women have already made short drives then posted videos on a social media site. Many more are planning to get behind the wheel on Saturday for a mass protest. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The ban is supported by conservative clerics, but government authorities seem to be more lenient these days.
From the Saudi capital, Riyadh, NPR's Deborah Amos has the story of two of Saudi Arabia's defiant female road warriors.
SARA HUSSEIN: I feel like it's looking good. I think it is looking very good.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: They are mother and daughter, two generations working to overturn the ban. Thirty-two-year-old Sara Hussein says it's time to claim the right to drive.
HUSSEIN: Think back in history, Rosa Parks was the only person who sat down on the bus, wasn't she? And then it started to happen gradually. It does have to start with the few brave people who are willing to risk whatever there is to risk.
AMOS: Sara's mother, Aziza al-Yousef, is in her 50's. She's a key organizer of the drive-in. An academic, she teaches computer science at the university. Activists set a date, October 26th, for a national road rally but encourage women to just get behind the wheel any time.
AZIZA AL-YOUSEF: We are saying, just go ahead and drive now.
AMOS: Are women starting to drive?
AL-YOUSEF: I know women start driving. The messages are hundreds. We are counting the videotapes. The videotapes are now over 60, or 70 videotapes we have.
AMOS: The videos come from across the kingdom, they say.
HUSSEIN: There is one of, I think, a Saudi man teaching either his sister or his wife how to drive.
AL-YOUSEF: Both, we have two tapes - one teaching his sister and the other one teaching his wife.
AMOS: Saudi Arabia is made for driving, with wide open spaces and cheap gas. The sprawling capital is as big as Los Angeles, but with no dependable public transportation. Women are dependent on male relatives or drivers, mostly an army of imported labor, expensive, and many women says an intrusion into their lives. The government is urging private companies to hire more women. It is hard to see how that can happen, says Sara Hussein, unless women can drive to work.
HUSSEIN: No one has been given orders from higher up saying that if you catch a woman in a car physically driving, then you have to detain her.
AMOS: Aziza al-Yousef believes it's a sign of tacit government approval. This campaign, she says, has learned from past mistakes. This is the third challenge to the driving ban. This time there will be no gatherings or no protests.
AL-YOUSEF: We don't want to break any law. The only law we want to break, ban women driving.
AMOS: And you have a driver's license?
AL-YOUSEF: Yes. I have international.
AMOS: For Aziza al-Yousef, it's time to drive. She invites me for a cruise around the capital. OK. We're going to get in the front. Her driver climbs in the back, we take to the road.
AL-YOUSEF: I need people to see that it is normal. We have to let people accept it. It doesn't mean anything if you drive only one day.
AMOS: The afternoon traffic is so heavy that nobody notices two women in the front seat, one of them behind the wheel.
AL-YOUSEF: Now, on our right, you will see a police station. Let's see what their reaction is.
AMOS: You're going to drive right by the police station?
AL-YOUSEF: Yes. This is it. You watch it. It's going to be on your right.
AMOS: She says the head of the national police stated publicly his officers would not arrest women for driving. But they will ticket those without a license, which is impossible for a woman to get here. Aziza al-Yousef drives like a pro. The only time she shows excitement is when another activist calls her.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
AL-YOUSEF: I am driving. Yep. Yeah. OK. OK.
AMOS: There's no ban on using cell phones in the car. We end our drive at her front door. Her husband is there to meet her.
AL-YOUSEF: My husband.
MOISEN AL HAYDAR: Hello, I'm a coward. How do you do?
AMOS: Moisen al-Haydar says he's given up driving. He's proud of his wife braving Riyadh's daunting traffic. He supports her driving campaign, but he's worried, too. There have been online attacks against activists. This week, conservative clerics urged the king to stop Saturday's drive-in. Aziza al-Yousef sweeps away her husband's concerns and sits down to check the driving videos filed today.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
AL-YOUSEF: She says this is a very positive movement. Saudi ladies should have the choice to drive her own car. And she named the tape: yes, we can.
AMOS: If they can is up to the King Abdullah who has said he believes women have the right to drive, but he hasn't said when. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.