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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Saudi Women Drive, Despite Ban, and Find Some Support on the Kingdom\'s Roads

A brief flurry of civil disobedience on the roads of Saudi Arabia this week, by women who flouted the conservative kingdom's ban on female drivers and documented it on Twitter and YouTube, ended on Thursday in a predictable manner - with an image of officers pulling alongside one car, captioned simply, “Police stopped us.”

Even so, a look back through the Twitter timeline of the female Saudi blogger who reported that setback, Eman Al Nafjan, also revealed something more surprising - evidence that some of the men the protesters shared the road with supported their cause. That was most obvious in video of one of the protest drives recorded on Wednesday by Ms. Nafjan, a mother and PhD candidate who writes as @Saudiwoman. The clip showed men, women and children in other cars flashing the thumbs-up sign to the woman behind the wheel as they passed by.

Ms. Nafjan, a mother and Ph.D. candidate who uploaded photographs and video of women driving this week, told Mohammed Jamjoom of CNN that the positive feedback seen in the video was recorded in Riyadh, the capital of the conservative kingdom.

This is not the first time that female activists have tried to use YouTube clips of themselves behind the wheel to prove that there is nothing dangerous or immoral about Saudi women driving themselves. In 2008, a rights activist named Wajeha al-Huwaider uploaded video of herself driving on International Women's Day. Three years later, another activist, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested on charges of disturbing public order for posting video of herself driving, recorded by Ms. Huwaider, as part of an online campaign to encourage Saudi women to take the road en masse that year.

Images of the latest protest drives were posted online all week by Ms. Nafjan to build support for a new push to do away with the ban, which activists hope will culminate in a demonstration of careful but illicit driving by women across the kingdom on Oct. 26.

Taken as a whole, though, what is most obvious about the photographs and video transmitted from the passenger seat by Ms. Nafjan is how little visible drama they show. That, she wrote on Twitter earlier in the week, is exactly the point.

Although the ban is a matter of Saudi tradition, not law, there have been reports recently that government officials could sanction a change, as the blogger and journalist Ahmed Al Omran and Ms. Sharif both noted this week.

Late Thursday, Ms. Nafjan reported that she and the driver who were briefly detained by the police had been released, although she noted that her mother was alarmed by opponents of the movement who were attempting to build support for her arrest using a new Twitter hashtag.