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Saudi women recall a day of driving

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"This year, everybody is discussing the issue of women driving. It's in the papers, on the Internet, in the Shura. It's not anymore the taboo it's been for the past 15 years," says Wafa al-Munif, sporting jeans and a colorful shirt under the black abaya women here must wear. "It's become a subject of debate in society at large," says Ms. Munif, who drove her husband's car in the driving demonstration.

At the gathering, the first that a journalist has been allowed to attend, they take turns speaking on the subject of this year's meeting: how to involve the younger generation in female empowerment.

"It was never about driving," businesswoman Aisha al-Mane says. "Driving is just a symbol."

She recounts what propelled them to take the wheel in the first place: "It was wartime and we were living in a war zone. We didn't want to be caught like sitting ducks if anything happened."

"I don't even like driving," says Ms. Mane, who received death threats and was forced to leave her home and job in Riyadh. "Even if I could drive now, I wouldn't; I much prefer to have a driver. It's about female empowerment and mobility. Women need incomes, they need jobs, and they need a way to get to those jobs," she says.

After 15 years of relative silence the debate was ignited this year when, during a routine review of traffic laws by the Shura Council, Mohammad al-Zulfa proposed a study on the pros and cons of allowing women to drive. The council buried the proposal, but not before the London-based al-Hayat newspaper got wind of it.

Since then, Mr. Zulfa, a retired history professor, has been flooded with more than 1,000 phone calls, faxes, and text messages from all over the country. About 60 percent were against the idea, he says, and advised him to repent and turn to God and "stop trying to impose Western and secular values in Saudi society." Some of the more vocal opponents threatened to kill him. But, he says, he will keep pressing the issue in the Shura Council until they agree to at least study the matter.

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