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2 Saudi women detained for driving in ongoing bid to end ban

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
December 3, 2013 -- Updated 1957 GMT (0357 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prominent advocates for allowing women to drive detained in Riyadh police station
  • Aziza Al-Yousef, the driver, and Eman Al-Nafjan, the passenger, were released to their husbands
  • Their efforts follow the October 26 campaign when dozens of Saudi women drove
  • Religious interpretation -- not law-- prevents women from driving in the Kingdom

(CNN) -- Two of Saudi Arabia's best-known female advocates for lifting the ban on women driving were detained on Friday after being caught behind the wheel in the country's capital.

Aziza Al-Yousef, who was driving the car, and her passenger, Eman Al-Nafjan, tell CNN they were pulled over and spent a few hours at a police station in Riyadh until being released into the custody of their respective husbands.

Al-Nafjan, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent bloggers, and one of the organizers of the popular October 26 Women's Driving Campaign, said she decided to go for a spin with Al-Yousef to attract more attention to her cause.

"We were looking for the police. We drove by the police station on purpose," she explained, adding how she welcomed the detention.

Despite repeated attempts, CNN has been unable to reach Riyadh police for comment.

Al-Yousef and Al-Nafjan, who tweets as "Saudiwoman," say they have grown tired of waiting for the Saudi government to allow women to drive.

"We are sick and tired of waiting to be given our rights," Al-Yousef told CNN. "It's about time to take our rights."

Al-Yousef has driven before and was glad to get behind the wheel again on Friday but says she was not deliberately looking to be detained by the police.

"In a way it is good for the cause because you'll the keep the issue in the mind of people," said Al-Yousef. "However, some people might understand wrongly that we're confronting the government and that might slow the process."

Why Saudi Arabia can't ban women from driving forever

Al-Yousef was initially concerned she and Al-Nafjan might go to jail, citing the presence of traffic police, regular police and secret police who were called to the scene. She says the mood of the police had lightened substantially by the time she and Al-Nafjan reached the station.

When her husband came for her, he was asked to sign a statement pledging Al-Yousef would not drive again.

Al-Yousef says her husband jokingly asked, "How can I do that? I can't prevent her from driving. Only God can do that," before signing. She was then released.

The issue of women driving is a particularly sensitive and controversial one in Saudi Arabia, the last country on Earth where females don't have that right. In recent years, though, more women have challenged the government, urging officials to overturn the ban and taking to streets in remarkable displays of civil disobedience. Although women are not allowed to drive in the ultraconservative Kingdom, there is, in fact, no law barring them from doing so. But religious edicts are often interpreted to enforce the prohibition.

"We have tried all the legal channels," explained Al-Nafjan. "The government keeps promising us that all we have to do is be patient and quiet, and we'll eventually get the right to drive. Officials keep saying the women driving issue is one for Saudi society to decide. We wanted to prove that really isn't the case and that the only people who really stop us is the police."

In May 2011, Manal Al-Sharif was jailed for more than a week after posting a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia online. She quickly became a hero to many and inspired dozens of women to drive throughout the streets of various cities in June of that year.

More recently, in September, a website for the October 26 Women's Driving Campaign launched, and within a few weeks, tens of thousands had signed an online petition calling for an end to the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia. As October 26 approached, numerous women filmed themselves driving in the conservative Kingdom and uploaded those clips to sites like YouTube.

Opinion: Give Saudi women the right to drive

In the weeks leading up to October 26, one Saudi cleric gave an interview in which he warned that Saudi women who drove risked damaging their ovaries. On October 24, the country's Interior Ministry issued a statement telling women to stay off the streets.

Despite strong opposition by conservative quarters in the Kingdom, where a puritanical strain of Islam is practiced, October 26 saw dozens of women taking to the streets and driving. The campaign's backers insist the movement is ongoing and has been a success thus far, while its critics say it has failed.

Last week, Al-Yousef had an audience with Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, via teleconference. She conveyed a message on behalf of the growing number of women and men calling for an end to the driving ban.

Al-Yousef was told the matter was now in the hands of Saudi King Abdullah, considered a cautious reformer.

"I think it might have been a good thing," said Al-Yousef. "Before the government had said the driving issue was a societal issue. But now that is not an issue anymore. The good thing is now we know clearly that society is not the decision maker."

Al-Yousef added: "We are trying to find a way to reach the King now. We have a letter signed by 3,000-plus people asking for permission to allow women to drive, and we want to find a way to get that letter to the King."

Al-Nafjan, who was detained before for the very same offense, says she will continue pushing the envelope, even if that gets her into legal hot water.

"I wouldn't mind if they prosecuted me," she says. "I think it will further the cause. It's good publicity for the cause -- to be prosecuted for being a passenger in a car driven by a woman. You can't get more medieval."

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