3 Saudi Shura Council women urge female drive ban lifted

RIYADH (AFP) - Three female members of Saudi Arabia's Shura Consultative Council filed a recommendation on Tuesday that a ban on women driving in the ultra-conservative kingdom be lifted, one of them said.

The move comes ahead of an October 26 initiative by Saudi activists to defy a long-standing driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia.

Ms Latifa al-Shaalan told AFP that she and two fellow council members, Ms Haya al-Mani and Ms Muna al-Mashit, filed a recommendation urging the kingdom's top consultative body to "recognise the rights of women to drive a car in accordance with the principles of sharia (Islamic law) and traffic rules".

They backed their recommendation with results of studies on the various justifications for women to drive.

"There is no law that bans women from driving. It is only a matter of tradition," Ms Shaalan said.

Saudi women have "made many achievements... and have acquired leading positions in the government and the United Nations, yet they are still banned from driving. This creates a negative image (for the kingdom) abroad," she said.

In January, King Abdullah appointed 30 women members for the first time to the advisory body - also known as the Saudi Consultative Council - which advises the monarch on policy but cannot legislate.

A petition signed in March by 3,000 Saudis had urged the council to launch a debate on the driving ban in Saudi Arabia, the only country where women are not allowed behind the wheel of a vehicle.

More recently, an online petition entitled "Oct 26th, driving for women" has gathered several thousand signatories.

Activists say that some 20 women are planning to take part in the campaign in the kingdom's Eastern Province.

A similar campaign in June 2011 drew only a few women, some of whom were stopped by police and forced to sign a pledge not to take to the wheel again.

The 2011 call, which spread through Facebook and Twitter, had been the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested and severely punished after demonstrating in cars.

In addition to the driving ban, Saudi Arabia imposes other major restrictions on women, including a requirement to cover from head to toe when in public.

Abdullah has been carefully treading towards change, introducing municipal elections for the first time in 2005.

In 2011, he granted women the right to vote and run as candidates in the next local election, set for 2015, because, he said, "we refuse to marginalise women's role in Saudi society".

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