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Six women said they were briefly detained in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, after they drove two cars in the northwestern part of city.
As we've reported before, the ability for women to drive legally gained international attention after Manal al-Sharif was arrested twice for getting behind the wheel. Her story has inspired a movement.
The six women arrested Thursday say they met each other on Twitter a few weeks ago, and for some of them it wasn't the first time challenging government and social restrictions. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported, in an effort to champion women's voting rights, some in the group decided to go to registration centers and demand voting cards even though the government prohibits it.
Rasha Alduwaisi, a woman rights activist, told us this time around, they decided to drive around so one woman in the group could teach others how to drive. They chose an empty block with no traffic, a spot they used the week before to do the same thing.
"I love driving," said one of the women, who asked we not use her name because she feared for her safety. "I used to dress like a man and drive in the streets of Riyadh."
On Thursday morning she tweeted: "I gotta feeling that this afternoon will be a great afternoon."
She said they managed to drive for roughly 15 minutes before they found themselves surrounded by six police cars. She and the other five women were then taken to the police station where they were held for two hours in what seemed like a storage room, she said. The women were asked to call their male guardians to come and bail them out. The women and their guardians had to sign an affidavit saying they will not drive or even attempt to learn to drive again.
In Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, women are subject to a male guardianship system, which requires they show proof of permission from their guardian — father, brother or husband — to travel, work, or sometimes receive medical treatment at a hospital.
Senior Saudi officials have said in the past that whether women are allowed to drive is a social issue and it is society who should decide when women can drive. But society remains divided around the issue. After traffic laws were updated in 2008, Fahad al-Bishr, director of the Traffic Department in the Kingdom, said there is nothing in the law that bans women from driving.
But Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, deputy minister of interior, recently said in a press conference that for women, driving is against the law.
"A statement was issued in 1990 prohibiting women from driving cars in the Kingdom. The Ministry of Interior's task is to implement an order. It is not our job to say something is right or wrong," he said.
Alduwaisi, 30, a stay-at-home mother who has been actively involved with an online effort to promote women's rights in the country, was one of the six women detained on Thursday. "We're waiting in a tiny dirty dusty room!" she posted on Twitter. Waiting in that room for her husband to come bail her out, she was nervous, thinking about her two children.
The 23-year-old woman who requested anonymity said a feeling of injustice started to sink inside her while in detention.
"Why are we being dragged like drug dealers over something that is not big of a deal?" she asked. Women cannot simply wait for the government to give them the right to drive cars, she said. "We have to fight for driving."
A Facebook group created in May is calling for Saudi women to take to the streets in their cars en masse on June 17. Al-Sharif, one of the leaders behind the Facebook group, was arrested on May 22, after she drove and posted a video on YouTube of herself while driving. Al-Sharif was detained for nine days before being released. After her release, al-Sharif announced she will no longer take part in the campaign. But a statement published on the Facebook group said the campaign is still on track and that "June 17 will be the day when women start driving their own cars."
However, several women activists that we spoke to said they remain pessimistic about the prospects of the campaign. The detention of Manal al-Sharif in addition to the arrest of the six girls on Thursday would be enough to intimidate most women, they said.
"I don't think anything will happen," Alduwaisi said, "but I want to be surprised."
Ahmed Al Omran is an intern with NPR's social media desk. He's blogged from Saudi Arabia since 2004, until he came stateside to attend Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.