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Saudi Women Take the Wheel to Protest Religious Ban on Driving

June 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Some Saudi Arabian women coordinated through social media to get behind the wheel Friday in protest of a religious ban on them driving legally. Judy Woodruff reports on the women who risked arrest to fight for new rights.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s another kind of stirring going on in the Arab world on behalf of women in Saudi Arabia, who are forbidden to drive a car.

This may not look like radical activity, but, in Saudi Arabia today, women got behind the wheel in a drive for new freedoms. Videos posted on YouTube showed several women driving in Riyadh and other cities, in direct violation of a religious ban in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

WOMAN (through translator): This is what we want to do. We do not want to count on other drivers. I need to go to my work, and if I need anything, I can drive myself. I think the community is ready to accept us and welcome us as drivers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For weeks, activists, using social networking, had urged Saudi women with international driving licenses to turn out for today’s Women2Drive effort.

The protest was sparked last month by this woman, Manal al-Sharif, who posted a video of herself driving in Riyadh.

MANAL AL-SHARIF, Saudi Arabia: We say a saying in Arabic: (speaking in Arabic) “The rain starts with a drop.” So, this thing is really a symbolic thing for us women, driving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Al-Sharif was detained for 10 days and forced to sign a document promising not to drive again. Still, her case sparked worldwide interest.

On Thursday, Amnesty International urged the Saudis to drop the driving ban and reconsider a whole range of other measures aimed at women.

PHILIP LUTHER, Amnesty International: It’s part of a web of legislation and bans and restrictions on women that basically mean that they are second-class citizens. So, in the same way that women are not allowed, without the permission of a male guardian, to travel, they’re not allowed, without the permission of a male guardian, to enroll in higher education, to take up paid work, and they’re not allowed to vote in elections.

WOMAN: You have got a very safe, capable driver behind the wheel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, at least, Saudi security forces mostly stood by as the driving protests got rolling. It remained unclear what, if any, action the authorities might ultimately take.