A court in Saudi Arabia has agreed to hear the first lawsuits by Saudi women challenging the kingdom's de facto ban on women driving, a lawyer for one of the women said.
The legal push is a shift by activists after years of simply appealing to Saudi leaders for permission to drive and, more rarely, taking to the roads in small numbers to test enforcement.
The lawsuits, one of them by Manal al Sharif, who founded a small movement last year called Women2Drive, risk a backlash from the public and officials in the conservative kingdom.
But with no breakthroughs in a campaign for the right to drive begun by Saudi women during the first Gulf war in the early 1990s, it was time to change tactics, said Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi computer consultant. "It's 22 years now," she said. "We have to just finish it."
Government officials contacted about the case did not respond to requests for comment.
No written law bans women from driving in Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah has said he sees nothing wrong with women driving. But in spite of the fact that the country follows a strict interpretation of Islam, tribal customs often prove equally infuential in shaping actual practice.
Advocates of a ban argue that allowing women the freedom to drive would lead to widespread loss of virtue among unmarried Saudi women, and de-stabilize society.
Advocates of the right to drive call the de facto ban a crippling and costly restriction on millions of Saudi women, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars a year for a driver, depend on male relatives for rides, or simply stay at home. They also argue that the ban is un-Islamic, and that women have never before in islamic history been forbidden from using their own transport.
"There is no actual law that states woman can't drive" in Saudi Arabia and therefore "no justification for preventing them from issuing a licence," said Sherif, one of the activists behind a "My Right, My Dignity" campaign aimed at ending discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia.
Sharif started her campaign last year, the same day a Saudi court jailed her for more than a week for driving and having herself videotaped driving.
Sharif's lawyer, AbdulRahman Allahim, said Monday that a court that hears citizen complaints against the government, the Board of Grievances, had agreed to hear the case. Prosecution of women drivers is typically handled elsewhere, in religious courts.
In a possible shift that could improve the chances of women seeking the right to drive, among other issues, a local newspaper reported on Saturday that Saudi authorities would create a new commission to handle social issues such as women driving.
While the government has not confirmed the report, the suggestion that cases of women driving might be moved out of religious courts electrified both sides of the debate.
"Saudi women sue for right to drive" Wall Street Journal February 7, 2012
"Saudi activists sue government over driving ban" AFP February 5, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today