Saudi Women Hold A Drive-In Protest

Women faced little objection from police as they took to the streets of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday to protest the ban on driving.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We begin today in Saudi Arabia where women activists say they are one step closer to overturning that country's driving ban. More than 40 women defied the ban yesterday, despite warnings from the government and conservative clerics. NPR's Deborah Amos has the story from Riyadh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: As the campaign kicked off on Saturday morning, two Saudi activists, Eman al-Nafjan and Madiha al-Ajroush met at a coffee shop at 8 A.M. They planned to dismiss their drivers and get behind the wheel. But a group of Saudi men they took to be state security officers waited outside and followed them throughout the day.

EMAN AL-NAFJAN: Four white cars following us around, with their cell phones, taking videos of us and photos. I don't see what's the big threat.

AMOS: That's Nafjan, who writes a popular blog. She says Saudi's Ministry of Interior called well-known activists and warned them specifically not to drive. But the first video of a defiant driver was already posted online. In a headscarf and sunglasses, she can be seen steering the family car to the grocery store. Al-Ajroush, who participated in the first challenge 23 years ago, and again in 2011, checked the video on her phone. It's a good sign, she says.

MADIHA AL-AJROUSH: We are driving anyway, you know. The will is there. The momentum which is far more important than anything else is there.

AMOS: This third challenge was different in many ways, with a boost from social media opened a national conversation. Opponents rallied using similar tools. On Friday, many Saudi clerics condemned women drivers in the weekly sermon. State news channels amplified warnings. But government messages were mixed. There were no arrests on Saturday. And there were many positive signals, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Rotana TV, a private Saudi channel devoted hours to covering the driving campaign. In the studios in Riyadh, Hatoon al Fassi, who teaches women's history at King Saud University, says for the first time, women had a platform to make their case to the wider public. Many Saudi men also supported lifting the ban.

HATOON AL FASSI: Every day, every newspaper would have more than two, three, four articles.

AMOS: In the past, women who defied the driving ban were arrested, some lost their jobs. This time, more than 17,000 Saudis signed an online petition of support, she says.

FASSI: It's going to happen because we are not going to stop here. Women have reached the moon and we are still debating whether we drive or we don't drive.

AMOS: By mid-afternoon, Nafjan and al-Ajroush finally decided not to risk driving on this day. They can't shake the men who have been following them for hours. Al-Ajroush stopped by a toy store. She buys a yellow car and confronts them.

AL-AJROUSH: Today's the 26th of October and I'd like to give you a gift of this car. He looked at me with anger, grabbed it with aggressiveness. But, hey, he and took the car.

AMOS: Did some of this intimidation work?

AL-AJROUSH: Yes, of course it did.

AMOS: And you're a little angry about that.

AL-AJROUSH: No. I'm not angry because it's not going to stop us. If it's not today, it will be tomorrow.

AMOS: Activists say the driving ban is a hardship for women. They must depend on male relatives, a hired driver, or stay home. The lack of mobility limits prospects for employment. The kingdom's younger generation, more than 60 percent of the population, is more open to change.

GREG GAUSE: Saudi public opinion on the issue of women's driving has changed. And it's changed because these brave women push.

AMOS: Greg Gause is a specialist on Saudi domestic politics, a professor at the university of Vermont. He says that the driving ban continues because of the opposition of a powerful minority, the conservative religious establishment.

GAUSE: And thus, it's the third rail of Saudi politics and the Saudi rulers, I think, are very cautious about implementing a big change here because they don't want to lose the religious establishment.

AMOS: The driving ban is a symbol for a small group of activists. They don't expect it to be lifted soon. But the conversation has gotten more serious, and they say time in on their side. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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