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Driving change in Saudi Arabia

I love driving. While some readers may find that shocking, it's true. Like many everyday Australians, I relish the chance to jump in my car, a hybrid, with my daughter in the back and her favourite music on the stereo as we barrel through the Adelaide Hills.

This is a privilege I enjoy whenever I can. But it's a basic daily ritual women in Saudi Arabia cannot. Their government refuses to let them drive - an outrageous stance that their conservative religious leaders say is justified because husbands should be providing for their wives. Reports say it's not so much that it is a criminal offence for a woman to drive, more that authorities won't issue a woman with a licence.

A Saudi woman is not allowed in a car without a man present. So this means even though she can buy herself a car, she can't drive it. Saudi women must wait for their husbands or brothers to drive them, or they hire a driver, who is often a foreigner, or pay for a taxi. Paying for a driver or a taxi, of course, means less money for the household budget. There are also reports of some women being attacked by their drivers, so there's a security risk involved.

But, thankfully, Saudi women are saying enough is enough. It started with one woman, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old who learned to drive while studying in the United States. She was fed up having to wait on others so she could go about her day. Last month she was arrested for driving unaccompanied. Ms al-Sharif was later released and has since uploaded a video to YouTube showing her driving. That's encouraged other women to drive alone and use social media technology - which Arabs helped create with their Arabic numerals, don't forget - to overturn a great injustice.

These women, some of whom are driving at night to minimise the chance of being arrested, have a front-seat passenger to record their illegal act and post the "crime" on Facebook or YouTube, and send Tweets about it. Last Friday, June 17, organisers of the Saudi Women to Drive Facebook page say 40 women drove in protest, one of whom was arrested for not having a licence. The organisers say they are expecting more women to protest this coming Friday because they argue there will soon be too many women behind the wheel for the police to react.

There's been an explosion online in the number of women around the world showing their support for their Saudi sisters. A petition has been sent to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for Washington to publicly show it backs the actions of Saudi women. There have also been demonstrations outside Saudi embassies. I do hope Australian women will join with me in showing solidarity for the women of Saudi Arabia in our own way. Viewing the videos, reading the Facebook posts and writing to the Saudi embassy in Canberra are all simple steps we can take. Together we can make a difference.

First published on June 21, 2011 in The National Times

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