DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – A growing number of men are quietly helping steer a campaign to end Saudi Arabia’s ban on allowing women to drive, risking their jobs and social condemnation in the conservative kingdom.
Some of the men have even been questioned by authorities, and one was detained by a branch of the Saudi Interior Ministry — a move that sent a chill through some of the activists working to put women behind the wheel.
Last Saturday, more than 60 women said they defied the ban, although they faced little action from police. In the run-up to last weekend’s protest, men played a key role in helping wives, sisters and female friends to enjoy what they believe is a fundamental right.
Since the campaign was launched in September, they have produced videos of women driving and put them on social networks. They have helped protect the female drivers by forming packs of two or three cars to surround them and ward off potential harassment. And some have simply ridden as passengers with the women as they run their daily errands.
“The stereotype is that there’s a problem in Arab culture and that we are against women and that the West is on the side of women. This is totally rejected,” said Abdullah al-Bilassi, a 23-year-old engineering student in Riyadh.
He says he is active in the campaign partly because he is tired of hearing that Saudi men and Islam are against allowing women to drive.
Though no laws ban women from driving in Saudi Arabia, the authorities do not issue them drivers’ licenses. Many of the women who drove last weekend had licenses from abroad, activists said.
The tradition of banning women from driving is rooted in the kingdom’s hard-line interpretation of Islam known as Wahabbism, with critics warning that women driving could unravel the very fabric of Saudi society.
But al-Bilassi said that driving is “a basic right. I don’t know why they say society is against it.”
Most of the men active in the campaign are in their 20s and 30s. They say their fathers and uncles often tell them frankly in male gatherings that it is not yet time to allow women to drive. Hard-line ultraconservative clerics warn that it could lead to “licentiousness.”
Alaa Wardi of Riyadh, who says he is not involved in the campaign, has produced an online video called “No Woman, No Drive,” using a Bob Marley song to mock comments by a prominent sheik who said driving can harm a woman’s ovaries. It has more than 8 million views since Saturday.
Rights activist and campaigner Ali al-Hattab from the coastal city of Jiddah said the monarchy uses the religious establishment’s opposition to keep women from driving.
“The woman is a mother, daughter, wife and sister, so when the rights of a key member of society is affected, all the rights of society are affected,” he said. “They don’t want women driving because it opens the door to a flood of other demands that will lead to calls for political reforms. It will evolve from a call for the rights of a segment of society to the rights of all society.”
King Abdullah has gradually introduced reforms in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to sit on the national advisory council and permitting them to vote and run in municipal elections. But the stringent male guardian system is still in place, requiring women to obtain permission from a male relative to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo surgery in some cases.
Rather than arrest the women, which could lead to an international outcry — as was the case in 2011 and 1990 — authorities have instead increased pressure on their male supporters. A handful of men have been questioned since Saturday, activists said, and other campaigners have had to sign pledges not to allow their female relatives to drive again.
On Sunday, elementary school teacher Tariq al-Mubarak was detained by the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Department in Riyadh, although he has not been charged, said his lawyer, Abdel-Aziz al-Qassem.
He was targeted because of his role in the campaign, the lawyer said, adding that a phone line used by activists was registered under al-Mubarak’s name. He also had written columns in a major Arabic newspaper supportive of women’s rights to drive.
The lawyer told The Associated Press that he and al-Mubarak’s wife were able to see him for the first time Wednesday. “He is well and healthy,” al-Qassem said. “They just wanted to know what the point of the campaign is — if it is pressure on the government, which of course is not allowed, or a social campaign.”
The activists have been careful not to gather for fear of being accused of organizing a protest. Instead, they work independently in several cities to edit and upload the videos and help manage the campaign’s website and Twitter and YouTube accounts.
One female activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said some campaigners have “started to really panic” after al-Mubarak was detained. Two women said they were followed by undercover agents, while five others said they were contacted by the Interior Ministry and told not to drive.
The female activist said the role of men shows that a broad segment of society is supportive. “It never was a women’s campaign only. From the initial start, we’ve had men’s support and assistance,” she said.
A male campaigner who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job at a multinational company in Saudi Arabia said he is afraid he may be detained before his upcoming wedding. He said he closed his Twitter account at the request of his worried fiance.
“The Saudi government is careful not to arrest women (and) tend to take it out on the men,” he said, but added he is staying active in the campaign because the women need the support of men: “Because of the activism of men, sooner rather than later, women will drive.”