Equality/Women’s Rights

Saudi Women, Allies Keep Driving Campaign

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Official Saudi reaction to the women's driving campaign may be taking a harsher turn, with five women arrested this week. As usual, the e-mail alert about the situation came from Change.org, which is supporting the cause every way it can.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Five Saudi women who defied religious traditions by driving this week were detained by police in Jeddah on June 28, marking what may be a shift to harsher tactics by authorities who largely shrugged off the June 17 start of the driving campaign.

On June 29, it was not publicly known whether the women were still in police custody, according to news sources in Saudi Arabia.

News of all this was distributed via e-mail by Change.org, a politically progressive grassroots organization. Using social media to mobilize supporters, Change.org tabulates figures, issues press statements and rallies media attention for the Saudi women's right-to-drive campaign.

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It works side by side with other efforts--such as the Boston-based Honk for Saudi Women Driving--to keep the issue in the media headlights.

Change.org--with offices in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City-- estimates that 50 Saudi women risked jail on June 17 by driving. The group claims that more than 100,000 people in 156 countries supported Women for Driving in Saudi Arabia, a coalition of Saudi women's rights activists, via social networks.

A big reason for Change.org's dedication to the Saudi women's driving push is Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the group's human rights editor. He made contacts with female activists in Saudi Arabia in 2009 when he was covering human rights as a journalist.

In a recent phone interview, Joffe-Walt said that when he caught wind of Saudi women organizing for the right to drive in May, he saw an opportunity for Change.org to help by harnessing international media attention.

For that, Eman Al-Nafjan, a pro-driving activist who authors Saudiwomen blog, expresses deep appreciation.

"The way I see it is that as a Saudi woman, if some one is going to support my human right . . . I'm going to say a big fat 'thank you,'" she said in a phone interview with Women's eNews. "Drawing attention to the campaign outside of Saudi Arabia . . . will keep it an issue inside of Saudi Arabia."

On the heels of the June 17 event, Joffe-Walt told Women's eNews his top concern was sustaining international attention and interest.

One sign of that came on June 22, when Change.org launched a petition campaign to pressure Subaru, the Japan based automaker, to stop selling cars in the kingdom until women are allowed to drive. The site claims that more than 50,000 people have signed on.

"I'm not sure who will be courageous enough to get behind the wheel and deliver the petition to Subaru," Sara al-Haidar, an activist and student in Saudi Arabia, said in a phone interview. The threat of arrest is still very real for women involved in the campaign, she added.

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