RIYADH: A number of Saudi women drove cars on Friday in response to calls for nationwide action to break a traditional ban, unique to the ultra-conservative kingdom, according to reports on social networks.
The call to defy the ban that spread through Facebook and Twitter is the largest en masse action since November 1990, when a group of 47 Saudi women were arrested and severely punished after demonstrating in cars.
“We've just returned from the supermarket. My wife decided to start the day by driving to the store and back,” said columnist Tawfiq Alsaif on his Twitter page.
“I took King Fahd Road (Riyadh artery) and then Olaya Street, along with my husband, I decided that the car for today is mine,” Maha al-Qahtani tweeted.
Her husband Mohammed al-Qahtani tweeted that she carried her necessary belongings “ready to go to prison without fear”.
Another woman posted online a video of her driving after midnight Thursday as the first woman to answer the call for protest. The veiled woman drove along nearly-empty main roads until she parked at a supermarket.
“All that we need is to run our errands without depending on drivers,” said the unnamed woman in the video. “I believe that the society is ready to welcome us.”
Police patrols were at normal levels on the sleepy streets of Riyadh on the first day of the weekend, an AFP photographer reported.
Many Saudi women had pledged on Facebook and Twitter to answer the call to defy the deeply entrenched ban.
But instead of staging demonstrations, which are strictly banned in the absolute monarchy, women with driving licences obtained abroad were encouraged to take individual action.
Veteran women's rights activist Wajiha al-Huwaidar told AFP on Friday that she did not expect a huge turnout as hoped for by sympathisers abroad because of the severe response by officials to women who have taken the lead in recent weeks.
“I do not expect something big as people abroad imagine,” she said, adding that jailing activist Manal al-Sherif and others has scared some women off.
Sharif, a 32-year-old computer scientist, found herself behind bars for two weeks last month after driving in the Eastern Province and posting footage of her actions on the Internet.
Six other women were also briefly detained after being caught learning to drive on an empty plot of land in north Riyadh.
Women in Saudi Arabia face an array of constraints, ranging from having to cover from head to toe in public and needing a male guardian's permission to travel, to having restricted access to jobs because of strict segregation rules.
The protests are the climax of a two-month online campaign riding the winds of the so-called Arab spring which has spread mass revolts across the region and toppled two regimes.
The main Facebook page campaign, dubbed Women2Drive, says the action will start on Friday and keep going “until a royal decree allowing women to drive is issued”.
“Saudi Arabian authorities must stop treating women as second-class citizens and open the kingdom's roads to women drivers,” London-based Amnesty International said on Thursday.
“Not allowing women behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia is an immense barrier to their freedom of movement, and severely limits their ability to carry out everyday activities as they see fit, such as going to work or the supermarket, or picking up their children from school,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
There is no law banning women from driving in the oil-rich kingdom, but the interior ministry imposes regulations based on a fatwa, or religious edict, stipulating women should not be permitted to drive.
The last en masse protest against the ban was held in November 1990 when a group of women stunned Saudi men by driving around Riyadh in 15 cars before being arrested.
The women were provoked at the time by the sight of US female soldiers who were taking part in the first Gulf War driving military vehicles freely in their own country while they are banned.
Some of them reportedly said then that as their country was in war after Iraqi troops invaded neighbouring Kuwait, they felt like “sitting ducks” as they could not drive in case they needed to save their families.
The 47 women who took part in that protest were severely punished, with authorities suspending many from public sector jobs and reprimanding their male guardians.
They also faced a defamatory campaign with pamphlets calling them whores.
“If you get arrested, do not be scared. You will only be asked to sign a pledge” not to drive, read one of several recommendations posted on the campaign's Facebook page.