Defiant Saudi women got behind the wheels of their cars on Friday in response to calls for nationwide action to break a traditional ban unique to the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The call to defy the ban that spread through Facebook and Twitter is the largest en masse action since November 1990, when a group of 47 Saudi women were arrested and severely punished after demonstrating in cars.
Thirty-two women took part in the protest action, according to figures provided by posters on the social networking websites, a motor of popular uprisings that have rocked the Arab world this year.
“We’ve just returned from the supermarket. My wife decided to start the day by driving to the store and back,” columnist Tawfiq Alsaif said on his Twitter page.
One of the women, Maha Al Qahtani, tweeted that she drove down one of the capital Riyadh’s main arteries.
“I took King Fahd Road and then Olaya Street, along with my husband, I decided that the car for today is mine,” Ms. Qahtani said on Twitter.
“This is a right for women that is not banned by any law or religion... I went out to establish this right, so that it would be up to me to drive or not,” she told AFP by telephone.
Her husband Mohammed Al Qahtani tweeted that she carried some of her personal belongings to be “ready to go to prison without fear.”
A handful of women uploaded video footage of themselves driving, while some said they passed police patrols without being stopped, in what could be an attempt by authorities to avoid embarrassment as the call attracted global media attention.
A woman started the posting with a video of her driving after midnight as the first woman to take up the protest. Veiled, she drove along nearly empty main roads until she parked at a supermarket.
“All that we need is to run our errands without depending on drivers,” said the unnamed woman in the video. “I believe that the society is ready to welcome us.”
Police patrols were at normal levels on the sleepy streets of Riyadh on Friday, the first day of the Muslim weekend, an AFP photographer reported.
Many Saudi women had pledged on Facebook and Twitter to answer the call to defy the deeply entrenched ban.
But instead of staging demonstrations, which are strictly banned in the absolute monarchy, women with driving licenses obtained abroad were encouraged to take individual action.
Veteran women’s rights activist Wajiha Al Huwaidar told AFP she did not expect a huge turnout as hoped for by sympathizers abroad because of the severe response by officials to women who have taken the lead in recent weeks.
“I do not expect something big as people abroad imagine,” she said, adding that jailing activist Manal Al Sherif and others has scared some women off.
Sharif, a 32-year-old computer scientist, found herself behind bars for two weeks last month after driving in the Eastern Province and posting footage of her actions on the Internet.
Six other women were also briefly detained after being caught learning to drive on an empty plot of land in north Riyadh.
Women in Saudi Arabia face an array of constraints, ranging from having to cover from head to toe in public and needing a male guardian's permission to travel, to having restricted access to jobs because of strict segregation rules.
The protests are the climax of a two-month online campaign riding the winds of the so-called Arab spring which has spread mass revolts across the region and toppled two regimes.
The main Facebook page campaign, dubbed Women2Drive, says the action will keep going “until a royal decree allowing women to drive is issued.”
There is no law banning women from driving in the oil-rich kingdom, but the interior ministry imposes regulations based on a fatwa, or religious edict, stipulating women should not be permitted to drive.
A counter Facebook group was created urging men to beat every woman they spot behind the wheel.
The last mass protest against the ban was held in November 1990 when a group of women stunned Saudi men by driving around Riyadh in 15 cars before being arrested.
The women were provoked at the time by the sight of US female soldiers who were taking part in the first Gulf War driving military vehicles freely in their own country while they are banned.
The 47 women who took part in that protest were severely punished, with authorities suspending many from public sector jobs and reprimanding their male guardians.
(Mustapha Ajbaili, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at Mustapha.firstname.lastname@example.org)