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Honk if you support Saudi women drivers

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Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

(Read caption) A Saudi woman gets out of a car after being given a ride by her driver in Riyadh on May 26. A campaign was launched on Facebook calling for men to beat Saudi women who drive their cars in a planned protest June 17 against the ultra-conservative kingdom's ban on
women taking the wheel.

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What struck me about watching a YouTube video of Manal al-Sharif driving along in a Saudi city scene is how normal it looked: The modern Arab woman, wearing her hijab and black sunglasses, looking left before she makes a turn, checking her rear-view mirror, but mostly staring straight ahead as she chats with the woman in the passenger seat who is filming her.

But this simple act is utterly un-normal in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving – not because any law forbids it, but because custom and religious clerics say it's a no-no. With no public transport system, this makes getting to work, or getting the kids to school, or running errands more than a chore.

Ms. al-Sharif, who is a divorced mother and a computer-security consultant, was arrested May 22 after posting a video of herself driving. She was finally released 10 days later, but only after promising not to participate in the "Women2Drive" campaign. The campaign urges women to drive en masse in Saudi Arabia on June 17 to protest the entrenched driving ban.

The campaign is promoting itself through Facebook and Twitter, just as the organizers of the Arab Spring did. But will it galvanize support inside the conservative kingdom, which is the most restrictive Islamic government for women in the world? Women there cannot vote, have no property rights, and make up only 5 percent of the work force?

From behind her steering wheel, al-Sharif makes her case for the right to drive. Not all women can afford a hired driver, she says. And what about the morals of the drivers themselves? Hers got in an accident in the first week she hired him. "He used to harass me," she explained. "He'd adjust [the] rear-view mirror to see what I was wearing." This week, a Saudi businesswoman reported being raped at gunpoint by her chauffeur.

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