A group campaigning to end Saudi Arabia’s ban on driving by women called on Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru cars unit to pull out of the kingdom until the prohibition is lifted.
The announcement yesterday followed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of support on June 21 for women who challenged the ban by driving in Saudi Arabia. Clinton called them “brave,” saying, “I am moved by it and I support them.” Saudi Women for Driving, which had asked Clinton for her backing, organized a show of defiance by women who drove in the country June 17 and encourages them to continue operating cars.
“It is our hope that this will put huge pressure on the Saudi royal family and shine a bright light on the ‘gender apartheid’ in our country,” the group said of its call for Subaru to exit the kingdom. “It’s a chance for the company to live up to its brand and make a huge difference for nearly 13 million of us Saudi women.”
Fuji Heavy, whose biggest shareholder is Toyota Motor Corp., was the first carmaker targeted by the campaign because it is “progressive” and has marketed its products to women, the group said in a petition on U.S.-based Change.org, a website for social activism.
The campaign may be extended to Detroit-based General Motors Co.’s Cadillac and Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Co., two brands used by Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who was arrested last month for driving, said Change.org’s human-rights editor, Benjamin Joffe-Walt.
Driving in Riyadh
Sara al-Khalidi said by phone that she and a male driver accompanied her mother as the elder woman drove yesterday in the capital, Riyadh, before being reprimanded by the police and asked not to repeat the violation. Joffe Walt said by e-mail that there were two cars driven by women in Riyadh yesterday and that the scene was captured on video by a Saudi media company.
Fuji Heavy fell 0.2 percent to 592 yen as of 9:15 a.m. in Tokyo trading, extending its decline this year to 6 percent. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average declined 0.4 percent.
Fuji Heavy and its Subaru dealers in Saudi Arabia haven’t “received any information of any campaigns,” Tokyo-based Kenta Matsumoto, a spokesman for the company, said by phone. “We only have dealers in Saudi Arabia, and no factories. Our annual sales in the country are limited to only 300 to 400 units.”
Hani al-Faqih, a Subaru manager in Saudi Arabia, said from Riyadh that he had no immediate comment.
Hanspeter Ryser, a spokesman in Zurich for Cadillac Europe, said he wasn’t aware of any plans to change Cadillac’s business in Saudi Arabia because of the ban against women driving.
“I cannot imagine there are any steps planned to pull out of Saudi Arabia,” Ryser said. “It’s a very strong market for us. Cadillac vehicles are very popular in this part of the world. In general, we as a company are not getting engaged in political debates, political issues.”
Meeyoung Song, a spokeswoman for Hyundai, said she couldn’t immediately comment when reached by phone today.
The campaign caps a series of developments that began in May, when Saudi women used the Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. social-networking websites to call for females with international driver’s licenses to use their cars June 17. They said their plan wasn’t a protest. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year.
“This is already the largest women’s rights movement in Saudi history and no one here knows what will happen next, but a big company like Subaru pulling out could help change our country forever,” the women’s group said.
There were no reported arrests among the more than 50 women who drove on June 17.
Maha al-Qahtani said she was pulled over by police when she went for her second spin on that day. She said the officers who stopped her demanded that her husband, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was with her, sign a pledge saying he wouldn’t let her drive. He then drove the car and signed the pledge the next day at a police station, she said.
Al-Qahtani, 37, said she was given a ticket stating she didn’t have a Saudi license, an offense carrying a fine of 100 riyals ($27). Hers was issued in the U.S.
“When I posted this on Twitter, people wrote to congratulate me,” she said in an interview from Riyadh yesterday. “Getting a ticket means I’m recognized as a driver.”
Al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer-security consultant who has helped organize the women’s efforts to lift the ban, was arrested in the city of al-Khobar, in Eastern Province, after she drove on more than one occasion and urged other women to drive in a video she posted on YouTube, according to Amnesty International. She was forced to sign a pledge that she wouldn’t drive again and was released 10 days later, Amnesty said.
European Union Support
“The EU supports people who stand up for their right to equal treatment, wherever they are,” the Office of the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “The Saudi women who are taking to the road are exercising their right to demand that equality. They are courageous and have the High Representative’s support.”
In addition to Clinton’s support for a lifting of the driving ban, several members of the U.S. Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, have backed the campaign.
The last time a group of women in Saudi Arabia publicly defied the driving ban was Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in the kingdom to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. They were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety.
Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Some Saudis, including Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a cleric, say the driving ban prevents the spread of vice.