Two Saudi women remain in custody a week after defying driving ban

 Secrets Behind the Veil: Memoirs of an Expatriate Woman in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi activist and family members said Sunday that two Saudi women have been detained for six days for defying the kingdom’s driving ban, according to the Associated Press (AP).

A Saudi woman who tried to drive into the kingdom in defiance of a ban was arrested last Monday after being blocked at the border with the United Arab Emirates for a day.

“I have been at the Saudi border for 24 hours. They don’t want to give me my passport nor will they let me pass,” Loujain Hathloul said in a Tweet at around midday Monday, before Tweets from @LoujainHathloul stopped and the hashtag #Loujain_on_the_border started trending on the social media website.

“The customs (department) have no right to prevent me from entering even if in their opinion I am ‘a violator’ because I am Saudi,” 25-year-old Hathloul tweeted early Monday, adding that her driving license “is valid in all GCC countries,” a reference to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council which includes Saudi Arabia.

Another woman, UAE-based Saudi journalist Maysaa Alamoudi, who went to support her, was also arrested, a Saudi activist and family members told AP Sunday.

They all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

The oil-rich kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.

Activists say women’s driving is not actually against the law, and the ban is linked to tradition and custom ultra-conservative Wahhabi nation, and not backed by Islamic text or judicial ruling.

Some leading members of the country’s powerful Wahhabi clergy have argued against women being allowed to drive, which they say could lead to them mingling with unrelated men, thereby breaching strict gender segregation rules.

Last November the kingdom’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, said the female driving prohibition protects society from “evil” and should not be a major concern.
In October, dozens of women drove and posted images of themselves doing so as part of an online campaign supporting the right to drive.

They also circulated an online petition asking the Saudi government to “lift the ban on women driving” in a move that attracted more than 2,400 signatures ahead of the campaign’s culmination on October 26.

“The issue is not that of simply a vehicle driven by a woman, but the acknowledgement and recognition of the humanity of half of society and the God-given rights of women,” the petition states.

Last year, activists also focused their demands on October 26 – which they call a “symbolic” date as part of efforts to press for women’s right to drive.

In response, the interior ministry said it would “strictly implement” measures against anyone undermining “the social cohesion.”

Women who have defied the law in the past have been harassed by compatriots and run into trouble with the authorities as they would be arrested and have their cars confiscated.

In 2013, a woman was arrested for driving her diabetic father to the hospital.

In 2011, activist Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of October 26 campaign, was arrested and held nine days for posting online a video of herself behind the wheel.

That year Saudi police arrested a number of women who defied the driving ban and forced them to sign a pledge not to drive again.

In 1990, authorities stopped 47 women who got behind the wheel in a demonstration against the driving ban.

Late October, the UN Human Rights Council urged Saudi Arabia to crack down on discrimination against women among other rights abuses.

The council had already adopted a report listing 225 recommendations for improvements a couple of days earlier in Geneva during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the oil-rich kingdom’s rights record.

Many of the UN recommendations called on Riyadh to abolish a system requiring women to seek permission from male relatives to work, marry or leave the country, and one urged it to lift the driving ban.

The Wahhabi kingdom has strict policies segregating genders in public spaces and restricting women’s freedoms.

Currently all nine million Saudi women, regardless of economic and social status, are prohibited from studying, traveling, working, accessing governmental institutions, undergoing medical treatment or surgical procedures including childbirth, without the consent of their male guardians.

According to a number of activists, these restrictions on freedom of movement and access to basic human rights as a result of such rigorously imposed rules have led to the death of a number of Saudi women which could have otherwise been avoided.

Hardline clerics protested when King Abdullah, in January last year, decided to give women a 20 percent quota in the previously all-male Shura Council of 150 members.
The Shura Council is appointed by the king and advises the monarch on policy, but cannot legislate.

Riyadh has taken a zero tolerance approach to all attempts at protest or dissent in the kingdom, including by liberal rights activists, Islamists, and members of the Shia minority.

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