Saudi Women Get In Driver's Seat To Protest Ban

Dozens of women in Saudi Arabia drove cars Saturday in open protest against the kingdom's ban on women driving. NPR's Deborah Amos, who has been covering the story, speaks with Steve Inskeep about the outcome and implications of the protest.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Scores of women in Saudi Arabia went driving on Saturday. They were defying their country's informal but very real ban on women drivers. Police detained some women but did not do that much to stop the protest. NPR's Deborah Amos was in the Saudi Capital of Riyadh over the weekend. She's on the line now from Beirut. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So was it easy to spot women on the streets driving?

AMOS: Well, on Saturday there were 60. It's a very big country. Where you could spot them was on social media. They all posted on YouTube and I was invited to take a little cruise around the capital and nobody noticed that a woman was driving.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You were invited to take a cruise, meaning you were behind the wheel yourself?

AMOS: Not myself, but I was in the car with a woman driving. She dismissed her driver; he was in the back seat. And we drove right by a police station and nobody did anything.

INSKEEP: What did the male driver in the back seat have to say about all that?

AMOS: He is a hired driver so when his employer says to get in the back seat, that's what he does.

INSKEEP: OK. So a limited number of women but many of them seem to have gotten away with it. Did Saudi activists then get any closer to their goals here?

AMOS: No, they didn't. But what they say is this was a national conversation driven by social media, and there was plenty of support from men. One of the funniest was a Saudi comedian who posted a video called "No Woman No Drive" that's a takeoff on a Bob Marley reggae song. That got three million views. About a dozen women were detained. `

What happened when the police stopped them, they had to sign a paper that said they wouldn't drive until they had a Saudi license. Now, you can't - that's impossible to get. So activists said they think that maybe the Saudi government is going to start issuing licenses.

INSKEEP: They think that. Does that - what indication would there be?

AMOS: Nothing. But in the Saudi way of doing things, that could be a break in this campaign.

INSKEEP: Oh, because we have a situation where it's not formally banned for women to drive but they just aren't issued licenses. They can't legally do it without a license, but there's some hope that sometime that could change. Now is this just about driving, Deborah Amos, or is there something larger at stake here?

AMOS: Oh, there's certainly something larger. You know, after the last driving campaign in 2011, the king didn't lift the ban but what he did was he granted women the right to vote in municipal elections in 2015. He also put 30 women for the first time on this Shura Council - it's an advisory body - 28 of them hold Ph.D.s. Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal, but this thing is put on television.

So the wider public sees women asking questions, making statements. You know, there has been recently lawyers - women lawyers were licensed to work in Saudi Arabia. Fifty-eight percent of university students in the kingdom are women.

INSKEEP: Hmm. So why would it be so hard to let women drive?

AMOS: This is the religious establishment. They say it's the gateway to licentiousness, that women will abandon the family. But the truth of the matter is this argument is losing its power in the Saudi middle class. This is an economic issue. If you take a job as a woman, your husband, your son, a male relative, or a driver has to take you every day. It's expensive.

And Saudi Arabia wants to cut down on this huge army of workers who come in to take these driving jobs. So there is some economic push for the kingdom to open driving. The king, who by all accounts in Saudi Arabia, is a liberal on women's rights, appears to want to move forward. He's got to keep the religious establishment in his mind and so we will see. These women say they will continue the campaign.

INSKEEP: Deborah, thanks very much as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos who was watching women drive in protest in Saudi Arabia this weekend. This is NPR News.

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