Saudi women defy driving ban in online photos, video clips

By Angus McDowall

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi women's rights activists posted online photographs and video clips of themselves defying a ban on female driving on Thursday, two days after members of the influential Shoura Council called for an end to the prohibition.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, but debate about the ban, once confined to the private sphere and social media, is increasingly spreading to public forums too.

There is no specific law to prevent women from driving in the kingdom, but they cannot apply for driving licences and have previously been arrested on charges relating to public order or political protest after getting behind the wheel.

The photos and footage showed various women driving on busy streets in the capital Riyadh. One clip, dated Wednesday, showed a woman driving in the traditional veil, with only her eyes showing, as other motorists slowed and gave a thumbs-up sign.

One of the women, posting on Twitter as Eman al-Najfan, tweeted a photograph of herself being stopped by police. She was taken to a police station, activists said, though it was not immediately clear whether she would face further action.

One female activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the publication of the video clips and photographs was the first part of a two-stage campaign designed to change attitudes.

In the second stage, women with international driving licences will be asked to get behind the wheel on October 26.

"To drive with a licence should not be against the law," she told Reuters, adding that many Saudis, including senior officials, had become more open to the idea of women driving.

"The authorities, the country, how people think has changed," she said.

Conservative supporters of the ban, including members of Saudi Arabia's powerful clerical establishment, have said allowing women to drive will encourage the sexes to mix freely in public and thus threaten public morality.

Opponents of the ban say it means families have to employ expensive private drivers and makes it difficult for women to work or to do many other basic daily tasks.

They also point out that women in rural areas of Saudi Arabia frequently drive without being stopped by police.

A female member of the Shoura Council - a body appointed by King Abdullah to advise the government - proposed on Tuesday lifting the ban on women drivers.

The Council's transport committee must now decide whether to accept her recommendation and put it to the transport ministry.

Her proposal was widely reported in more liberal parts of the Saudi press and some newspapers published opinion pieces arguing that women should be allowed to drive. (Editing by Gareth Jones)

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