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Exclusive: Saudi blogger detained, but she's hopeful about campaign to allow women to drive

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Sun October 13, 2013
Madiha Al Alajroush, one of the Saudi women supporting the Oct 26 driving campaign, behind the wheel.
Madiha Al Alajroush, one of the Saudi women supporting the Oct 26 driving campaign, behind the wheel.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blogger Eman al-Nafjan tweets about filming a female driver, talks about their detention
  • After she and the driver were pulled over, "police were smiling and easygoing," she said
  • She says many in Saudi Arabia, including officials, think it's time to allow women to drive
  • No Saudi traffic laws ban women drivers, but some say that religious edicts do

(CNN) -- As a campaign for Saudi women to defy the driving ban in their country heats up, one of the country's leading female bloggers was detained in Riyadh on Thursday after a woman she was with did just that.

Eman al-Nafjan, who tweets as Saudiwoman and has been one of the leading voices urging Saudi women to get behind the wheel on October 26, was in a car that was stopped by police in Riyadh, the capital, as she filmed another woman driving.

Al-Nafjan, who has been calling on Saudi women to upload videos of themselves driving in different parts of the kingdom, spoke exclusively with CNN on Friday about what happened.

"Yesterday, I kept getting called by women I know who wanted me to film them driving," she said, explaining how she spent most of the day filming and uploading information about those excursions online.

"When I was live tweeting, some people took it into their heads that we had to be stopped," said al-Nafjan, "and then called the police."

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She was live tweeting as they were pulled over, posting a picture of the police car that had pulled alongside them, accompanied by the message, "Police stopped us."

That tweet set off a flurry of concern and supportive messages from Twitter users throughout Saudi Arabia.

Al-Nafjan initially felt queasy about being stopped, but her unease and worry quickly dissipated when she saw that "police were smiling and easygoing, and their attitude was very positive. The police were really nice to us."

They were taken to the Olaya Police Station, where she and Azza, the woman who had driven her, waited.

"The vibe I got was that they didn't know what to do with us. We could see the police going around, calling, waiting," explained al-Nafjan, who says she believes this is a sign that the driving campaign has gained momentum and that many in Saudi Arabia, including officials, think the time has come to allow women to drive.

October 26 campaign

Women who want Saudi Arabia to lift a de facto ban on their driving have launched an online campaign urging Saudi women to stage a demonstration by driving cars on October 26.

"There is no justification for the Saudi government to prohibit adult women citizens who are capable of driving cars from doing so," reads part of an online petition on the Oct26driving.com website. Even though the website was reportedly blocked in Saudi Arabia shortly after its creation in late September, the petition has so far garnered more than 14,000 signatures.

No traffic law specifically prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but religious edicts there are often interpreted to mean women are not allowed to operate a vehicle.

CNN was unable to reach Saudi Arabia's Interior and Justice ministries for comment on the issue.

Just a day before being stopped by police, al-Nafjan posted online another video she filmed of a woman driving for two hours throughout Riyadh. They were not stopped, and the video shows male drivers waving to the women and supporting them with the thumbs-up sign. That video quickly went viral, eliciting numerous comments. While most were supportive, there was also a negative reaction -- at one point, a hashtag was created calling for al-Nafjan's arrest.

Al-Nafjan says her husband was also made to come to the police station Thursday. When al-Nafjan was finally told to come inside, she was asked if she knew that what she did was wrong.

"I said it's not wrong," said al-Nafjan, who was then told to sign two documents: one stating that she would no longer get into a car with a woman driving, and another that she would no longer film women driving.

When asked if she would adhere to those agreements, al-Nafjan said that "it doesn't matter whether or not I go out. This isn't about me. This is a people's movement. This is not about me. This is about many women."

Al-Nafjan, who was in extremely high spirits while speaking via phone with CNN, said the experience with police ultimately bolstered her confidence in the movement she is helping spearhead. She said the lack of her arrest and her and Azza's quick release show that this campaign is making a difference and things are beginning to change.

Other challenges to driving ban

The issue of women driving in the conservative kingdom has long been contentious. And while such demonstrations are extremely rare, they have been staged at least twice before.

In May 2011, prominent Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested after uploading a video to YouTube that showed her driving in Saudi Arabia. She spent more than a week in jail and quickly became a hero to numerous women in her country and across the Middle East.

In a sign of just how influential she had grown, on June 17, 2011, dozens of women across Saudi Arabia, emboldened and inspired by al-Sharif's ordeal, participated in the "Women2Drive" campaign by getting behind the wheel, defying the ban and driving throughout the streets of their cities.

In 1991, a group of 47 women protested the prohibition by driving through Riyadh. After being arrested, many were further punished by being banned from travel and suspended from their workplaces.

Recently, a leading Saudi cleric made headlines when giving an interview in which he warned Saudi women that driving could cause damage to their ovaries -- a comment that was widely interpreted to be a reaction against the October 26 driving campaign and how popular it had grown.

In addition to prohibiting driving, the country's strict and compulsory guardianship system also prevents women from opening bank accounts, working, traveling and going to school without the express permission of a male guardian.

Saudi Arabia has been moving toward change under its current ruler, King Abdullah, who is considered a cautious reformer and proponent of women's rights. In January, he appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the first time women had been chosen for the country's top consultative body. In 2011, he announced that women could run for office and vote in local elections in 2015. And in 2009, he appointed Saudi Arabia's first female Deputy Minister.

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