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Human Rights

Saudi women's driving protest makes tentative start

A "drive-in" protest against a ban on women driving in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been taken up only tentatively in the face of warnings from authorities. But campaigners remain determined.

Women's Driving Day Protest

Campaigners for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia had used social media networks to call on women across the Islamic kingdom to drive on Saturday to challenge law, under which only men are allowed to take to the wheel.

A few Saudi women defied government warnings of arrest and prosecution to take part in Saturday's protest, posting videos of themselves driving on YouTube and Twitter, activists said.

Police warnings that anyone disturbing public order would be dealt with forcefully seemingly deterred many women from taking part in the protest action. The interior ministry also said Wednesday it would act against anyone who attempted to "disturb public peace" by congregating or marching "under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving."

Although there is no specific Saudi law banning women from driving, they are not issued licenses. Conservative clerics have warned that "licentiousness" will spread if women are allowed on the roads.

'Open' campaign planned

Activists say that their campaign will continue despite Saturday's setback.

"Out of caution and respect for the interior ministry's warnings ... we are asking women not to drive ... and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign," the activist Najla al-Hariri said.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving. Efforts to tip the ban began more than a decade ago.

In 1990, some 47 women took part in a similar action to that planned for Saturday. All of them were detained and severely punished.

Online petition

An online petition launched in September amassed more than 16,000 signatures before it was blocked by authorities two weeks later.

Amnesty International has denounced the threats issued against women, and Human Rights Watch has called for an end to discrimination.

Saudi women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe and need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.

tj/ipj (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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