by Radhika Marya
More Saudi Arabian women drove their cars in the streets of capital Riyadh Wednesday, continuing a campaign – largely rooted in social media – to push the kingdom into overturning a ban on female drivers. At the same time, one of the European Union’s top diplomats sent a long-requested message of support for their campaign.
The drivers were Sara Al-Khalidi, who was accompanied by her mother, and Azza Al-Shamasi, who was accompanied and filmed by blogger Eman Al Nafjan. The group was also filmed by Saudi media group Rotana.
Al Nafjan also filmed another drive on June 17, the original day the Women2Drive movement called for Saudi women with international licenses, or licenses issued by foreign countries, to drive their own cars. According to an email from Change.org Human Rights Editor Benjamin Joffe-Walt, someone later broke the car’s glass and left a note in English that said, “Don’t drive again, Bitch.”
“This could have been a Saudi man or a hired driver worried about losing [his] job,” Joffe-Walt says.MSNBC has a photo of a similar note attached to a smashed side mirror. The note appears to say “Plz Do Not Drive” on one side and “biatchhh” on the other. Al Nafjan’s family says it was placed as a warning after she was part of the June 22 drive through Riyadh, according to MSNBC. Al Nafjan could not be reached for comment.
The Saudi driving ban on women is not based on any written law, but religious rulings enforced by police have prevented most women – Saudi and foreign – from driving. This has caused Saudi women to rely on live-in drivers or male relatives for transportation, leading to the Women2Drive movement, which began picking up momentum on social media sites around two months ago.
Women did go driving on the designated date of June 17, even though key organizer Manal al-Sherif was arrested and jailed for a few days in May after posting a video of herself driving on YouTube. Some women, like the ones who ventured out Wednesday, are also driving on later dates. According to most reports so far, women stopped by the police have only been briefly detained since they began driving June 17. At least one woman, Twitter user @Maha1410, received a ticket.
Al-Shamasi says she feels the campaign is moving slowly. But Al-Khalidi says she thinks it’s starting to move in a big way, adding that she’s even heard some positive feedback from the more conservative members of Saudi society.
“It seems that a lot of people are appreciating what’s happening,” Al-Khalidi says. “We are not against anyone. We are not trying to provoke anyone.” She does know of some women who have heard negative feedback, while she herself hasn’t received any.
Meanwhile, even Al-Shamasi thinks the campaign might pick up speed. “I think more people are going to drive soon, and we can see that through YouTube,” she says.
Women2Drive continues receiving attention outside Saudi Arabia. The latest message of support comes from Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ashton released a statement describing the women’s movement as “courageous.”
“The EU supports people who stand up for their right to equal treatment, wherever they are,” the statement reads. “The Saudi women who are taking to the road are exercising their right to demand that equality. They are courageous and have the High Representative’s support.”
The message came after more than 7,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking Ashton for a public declaration of support, and just one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced her support during a news conference.