Five Saudi Arabian women have been arrested for the first time since numerous women started driving on June 17, in an effort to defy the kingdom’s ban on female drivers. The incidents have been reported by the Saudi media and have also been confirmed by the Saudi Women for Driving, a coalition of Saudi women’s rights activists.
According to a statement from the Saudi Women for Driving, one incident was first reported on Facebook by Saudi journalist Jamal Banoon. Four women driving through the city of Jeddah on Tuesday were arrested by agents representing Saudi’s religious police: the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The women were reportedly taken to a criminal investigations unit.
The second incident also took place in Jeddah later on Tuesday night. The Saudi Women for Driving’s statement indicates that four police cars surrounded a woman who was driving through the city’s downtown area. The woman was taken into custody for driving. Her car was confiscated, according to Saudi news site SABQ. The status of the arrested women is presently unknown.
The Saudi Women for Driving have launched a petition on online activism platform Change.org, asking for the women’s immediate release. The petition, which has more than 74,000 signatures at the time of writing, says: “We call on King Abdullah, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to immediately release all five women, who were doing absolutely nothing wrong and driving in accordance with Saudi traffic laws.”
The Saudi Arabian ban on female drivers is not enforced due to any written law, but religious rulings by clerics have prevented women — Saudi and foreign, alike — from driving throughout the country. According to the Saudi coalition’s petition, “King Abdullah… declared in 2007 that the issue of women driving cars is a social issue, not a religious matter, and therefore subject to the rule of the state, which means that in theory if the community wanted to lift the ban on women driving there would be no obstacle.”
The Social Media Behind Women2Drive
These are the first reports of arrests since women began driving on June 17, as part of the Women2Drive movement, which caught momentum on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Though Manal al-Sherif, a key figure in the movement, was arrested and detained for a few days after posting a video of herself driving on YouTube in May, women who began driving on June 17 were able to do so without much incident. Some tweeted and posted YouTube videos, documenting their driving.
Many continued driving even after June 17, and some tweets from Tuesday indicate that some Saudi women were still driving the same day the Jeddah arrests took place. One Twitter user, @Reemalshahri, said: “my sister just drove her 3 daughters to Rashid mall and got a big applaud by people gathering in parking lot.”
On Monday, prior to the incidents that led to arrests, @khadijapatel tweeted: “Friend in Jeddah just sent me a text saying she’s driven herself to her uncle’s home ‘and no one caught me’.”
The campaign against the ban has received quite a bit of international support, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton breaking her silence on the matter last week by calling Saudi women brave. U.S. Congresswomen have also tweeted their support, and Catherine Ashton — the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy — has also issued a statement in favor of the campaign.
But while the Women2Drive movement does have Saudi and international support, it has met some opposition within its own country — even prior to the Jeddah arrests. Twitter was buzzing at the end of last week, as Saudi users said mosques were putting up posters decrying women drivers. As Arab News reported, posters distributed through the capital, Riyadh, claimed it is taboo in Islam for women to drive. Now a tweet from Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed), a social media intern at NPR, is being retweeted throughout Twitter. The tweet cites a cleric who says women driving is not “haram,” meaning forbidden, but dangerous along the lines of arms dealing.
Image courtesy of Flickr, smemon87
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