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Saudi Women Get Behind Wheel For 'Drive-In' Protest

Women in Saudi Arabia are braving a ban on their ability to drive, taking to the streets Saturday as part of a push to allow women to attain driver's licenses. Thousands of people have signed an online petition supporting the protest, which government and religious officials have spoken out against.

NPR's Deborah Amos filed this report from Riyadh for our Newscast unit:

"The drive to end Saudi Arabia's unique ban kicked off early on Saturday, when the first video was posted online of a woman driving in the capital.

"Activists have been officially warned of arrest and possible legal action. Some high-profile organizers got personal calls from the Ministry of Interior advising them to stay off the road. They were also shadowed by undercover cops in what appeared to be an intimidation campaign.

"However, the warnings have been mostly ignored. Support to lift the ban has come from surprising quarters — including male commentators in Saudi's mainstream media."

The drive-in is the third broad protest against the ban since the early 1990s. And it's being discussed energetically on Twitter, where the hashtags #Saudi, #Oct26driving, and #Women2Drive are providing running commentary.

As of Saturday morning (in the U.S.), we're not seeing any reports of broad arrests related to the protest. Police had reportedly intended to use the threat of traffic tickets, not arrests, to dissuade most women from driving.

A video posted to the Oct. 26 Driving YouTube account Saturday shows a woman driving while wearing a niqab (a veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered), talking with her passengers. We'll note that even in the excitement of the moment, the driver smoothly flicks on her turn signal to change lanes and make a right turn.

Today's protest also inspired a song: "No Woman No Drive." The liberal rewrite of the Bob Marley hit was posted to YouTube Saturday by musician Alaa Wardi and comedians Hisham Fageeh and Fahad Albutairi.

As we reported last month, a Saudi cleric who had hoped to discourage female drivers said that sitting behind the wheel of a car could harm a woman's ovaries. His comments met with derision, and inspired some of the lyrics to the "No Woman No Drive" parody song.

Organizers tell the AP that at least 60 women took part in Saturday's protest. More than 20 women posted videos of themselves driving in Saudi Arabia today.

The AP spoke with May Al Sawyan, who says she was one of them.

"I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me," Sawyan told the AP in a phone interview. "There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine. ... They are not used to seeing women driving here."

Sawyan tells the news agency that she has a driver's license — it's just not a Saudi one. As Deborah Amos has reported, Saudi Arabia is the only country that doesn't allow driver's licenses to be issued to women.

Asked about today's protest drive, Sawyan says she didn't go far.

"I just took a small loop. I didn't drive for a long way, but it was fine. I went to the grocery store," she tells the AP.

The agency says Sawyan's "husband and family waited at home and called her nervously when she arrived at the grocery store to check on her."

In a recent report on the female drivers' movement in Saudi Arabia, Deborah rode along with Aziza al-Yousef on a trip around Riyadh, with her male driver relegated to the back seat. Al-Yousef is a main organizer of the event.

"We are saying, 'Just go ahead and drive now,' " she says. "I know women started driving. The messages are in the hundreds. We are counting the videotapes."

In the weeks leading up to today's event, a website created by the protest's organizers was blocked in Saudi Arabia. And on Friday, the site was hacked.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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