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Saudi women plan to hit roads in latest push for right to drive

A group of Saudi Arabian women plans a protest tomorrow defying the world’s only ban on female drivers.

Organizers are urging women across the country to take to the roads. The group, named the “26th October Women’s Driving Campaign,” called on the government to provide “a valid and legal justification” for maintaining the ban, and “not simply defer to social consensus,” according to its website. More than 16,000 people signed an online petition in support.

King Abdullah has expanded the rights of women in the world’s biggest oil exporter, but without moving fast enough to satisfy many. Abdullah, who must contend with opposition from traditionalist clerics and their followers, opened the first coeducational university, named the first female deputy minister and said women can vote and run in municipal elections. That right won’t take effect until the 2015 polls though, while the driving ban remains in force.

“We should feel insulted if someone says we are not ready for this change or that women cannot do this,” said May al-Suwayan, a 32-year-old economic researcher who’s planning to drive as part of the protest. “I don’t think Saudis look down on women,” she said by phone from Riyadh. “I think it’s a matter of fear of change, which will easily be overcome if women show them that we are ready.”

There’s strong resistance to such views.

A group of religious men rallied outside the Royal Court in Jeddah on Tuesday, calling the right-to-drive movement a “conspiracy” against the government, al-Hayat newspaper reported. Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaidan, a Saudi cleric, told the Sabq website last month that Saudi women shouldn’t drive because they risk damaging their ovaries.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the austere Wahhabi form of Islam. Saudi women need a guardian’s consent to travel outside the country, marry or conduct official business.

Saudi Arabia “reduces women to the status of children, unable to make important decisions about their lives,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday. Amnesty International said yesterday that the driving ban is “discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately.”

The Interior Ministry warned women against joining yesterday’s protest, saying laws will be enforced and instability won’t be permitted, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

King Abdullah, born in 1924, has stepped up spending to help create jobs since unrest spread through the Arab world in 2011, and women have shared some of the benefits. A total of 680,000 women were employed in 2012, up from 505,000 in 2009, according to official figures. Women have been allowed to take retail jobs that were previously barred.

Wider educational opportunities are also set to boost women’s role in the economy. Sara Aalamari, a 27-year-old who works for the Al-Ghazzawi law firm in Jeddah, this year became one of the first four women to receive licenses to practice law from the Ministry of Justice, after graduating in 2008 from the first law degree program offered to Saudi women.

The license “should make it easier for us to be able to appear in court and represent more clients,” Aalamari said by telephone from Jeddah. “Women are getting assistance to have a greater role in the workplace.”

Economic pressure may help open Saudi roads to women, said John Sfakianakis, chief investment strategist at MASIC in Saudi Arabia.

The cost of employing a driver “is a burden on middle- class purchasing power, and that could be addressed if women are allowed to drive,” he said.

Fawziah al-Hani, a 50-year-old social worker from Safwa in the Eastern Province, said the cost of hiring a driver takes a toll on her budget. She also says she has broader concerns.

“I’m not fighting for my rights alone, I’m fighting for my children’s,” she said. “Some of my daughters are studying abroad. They call me sometimes and tell me they don’t want to come back to Saudi Arabia.”

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