Saudi Female Activists To Get Behind The Wheel Again

On Saturday, Saudi activists are calling for a national "drive-in," encouraging women to break the country's ban on women driving. Many are not waiting for the start date. One female activist has a long history in this movement: Madiha Al Ajroush, who took part in the first driving protest in 1990.

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And I'm David Greene. There is one country in the world where women are forbidden from driving - that's Saudi Arabia. Activists want that to change, and they're calling on women to get behind the wheel tomorrow in protest. Officials in the kingdom have told them off the road. NPR's Deb Amos reports from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The campaign to lift the ban gathered steam this week. Despite official warnings, activists have encouraged women to drive themselves on Saturday. Some aren't waiting, posting defiant drives on YouTube that activists say shows growing confidence.

MADIHA AL AJROUSH: I waited for 23 years to see this. People are operating with no fear.

AMOS: She took part in the first challenge to the driving ban in 1990.

AJROUSH: My name is Madiha Al Ajroush.

AMOS: Then, 47 women dismissed their drivers and took control of the wheel in the capital, Riyadh.

AJROUSH: And we just drove the car. And it was exhilarating. It was great.

AMOS: You paid a price for that.

AJROUSH: A big price. We all paid the price.

AMOS: The female drivers were denounced by name in the newspapers, lost their jobs, suffered a government travel ban. Al Ajroush said she was ordered to stop work as a photographer. Officials confiscated and burned 15 years of photographs and documents, but she says the punishment wasn't as bad as she feared.

AJROUSH: I was angry. There's actually no question. The burning, it may sound really a lot, but at that time, until now, no, I wasn't imprisoned.

AMOS: Now she runs a private clinic in Riyadh. A psychotherapist. She's also a veteran of the second campaign to lift the driving ban in the summer of 2011.

AJROUSH: A lot of women drove in 2011. Not all of them were caught. I was caught, and it was just right in front of my home. The police treated me very, very well. But then at the end of that I lost my job. So for the second time I had to pay a price.

AMOS: There's no law here that prohibits women from driving. It's an unofficial ban supported by conservative clerics in a society where social change comes at a glacial pace. But now there seems to be more social acceptance of a woman's right to drive, says Al Ajroush, in a country where the harsh ban limits mobility.

AJROUSH: It's like a person being cut off. Their legs are cut off and the wheelchair has been taken away from them and you're completely dependent on one gender.

AMOS: With no dependable public transportation, women must depend on male relatives or a hired driver, part of an army of imported labor here. A full-time driver is a financial burden, she says, but her objection is about more than money.

AJROUSH: Every time I'm in the car with a stranger that hears all my phone conversations, that knows every single detail of my life. He knows what I like. He knows if I had a fight with my husband. He knows everything. It's worse than the CIA in the United States. He knows everything about me.

AMOS: It's almost like he's part of the family but he's not.

AJROUSH: He's not. He's not.

AMOS: Al Ajroush has defied the driving ban once again. Earlier this week, she posted a video of herself driving with her daughter and uploaded a record of the event on YouTube.

AJROUSH: I put my full name and I said till when are we not allowed to drive. And I said that I'm ready and my daughter is ready and so is society's ready.

AMOS: She was one of the first to post to a website called October 26 Driving. Now more than 100 women have posted pictures, and there's even a kind of anthem posted on the site posted by a Saudi singer based in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) We're on each other's team.

AMOS: Is this the time when Saudi women finally get the right to drive? Al Ajroush is already thinking about her reaction.

AJROUSH: I would be relieved and crying and the tears will be about the dedication and the years and the losses for such a simple thing - the right to drive.

AMOS: The decision is ultimately up to the Saudi king, seen by women here as a progressive when it comes to women's rights. Saudi activists say they'll stay behind the wheel to keep up the pressure. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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