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Saudi Arabia started allowing women to drive last month. It also detained women who advocated for the right to drive. These mixed signals are being followed closely by a Saudi woman in California who has a lot at stake. She's speaking out against Saudi's so-called guardianship system that places women under the rule of male relatives, a system that could force her to return to the country. NPR's Deborah Amos brings us this report.
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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This was the scene when Saudi Arabia issued the first driver's license to a woman - an official big deal. Cameras whirled. Smiling policemen snapped the moment. June 24 was officially called driving day. Twenty-nine-year-old Samah Damanhoori watched the celebrations from San Francisco. She was thinking about the prominent activist jailed and smeared in Saudi newspapers.
SAMAH DAMANHOORI: Well, it's horrifying, and it's very scary what's happening right now in the country. We're still - don't know why, why now. We still don't have clear answers.
AMOS: To her, it's signaled that women drivers and women workers might be part of the kingdom's plan to diversify the oil economy, but that didn't add up to changing the sweeping guardianship rules, rules that give male relatives control over the lives and actions of even adult women.
DAMANHOORI: Women cannot study, cannot work, cannot even travel without a male permission or a male guardian. It's as simple as that.
AMOS: And now we get to Damanhoori's story. When she won a government scholarship for a graduate program in California, her father, her guardian, had to approve her enrollment, her application for a passport. He had to give consent for her to travel to the U.S. By law, Damanhoori had to have a male relative accompany her to the U.S. It's called a mahram, a guardian in Arabic. She says her father waived the requirement at first, and then, she says, he changed his mind. In a memoir she wrote for her master's thesis, she recounts the call from the Saudi embassy.
DAMANHOORI: (Reading) Who is your mahram? My father, I said. Where is he - home. Well, Samah, your father called us and asked us to cancel your scholarship because he no longer approve you studying here without a male companion. Is there a conflict going on between the two of you?
AMOS: The Saudi embassy didn't answer an NPR request for a comment. When I called Damanhoori's father, Sameer, in Saudi Arabia, he confirmed he had cancelled the scholarship. That's our custom. He explained that male guardianship laws give him that right. He wants his daughter to come home and forget her education. She decided to stay in the U.S. and cut family ties.
DAMANHOORI: It was really hard at the beginning. I lost myself. I lost the ability to just form a whole sentence. I came from a very strict country to a very free country.
AMOS: Her grad school supported her. She now has a job in high tech. She has also applied for political asylum to stay in the U.S. She says her father has been abusive. He denies that, but he does say that if she returns, he will never give permission for her to leave again. Her claim - the guardianship system puts her in danger.
DAMANHOORI: My story with my father - and what would happen if I go back to Saudi?
AMOS: Now she sees her role as an outside voice for women's rights inside the kingdom. She gives talks in the Bay Area uploaded to YouTube to reach an audience back home. She's found her voice, she says.
DAMANHOORI: The more I spoke up, the more I went in public, and all the noises in my head just became lower. And it's really important for us to speak loud for these women who are being abused to never give up.
AMOS: She's now backed by Women's March Global, an international organization that helps amplify women's voices. Lara Stein is executive director based in New York.
LARA STEIN: It's important to understand what she's given up to step into this role. But she understands that she's one of the few people that is able to have a voice. And I think at the end of the day, it's a very courageous move.
AMOS: Women's March Global has collected more than 200,000 signatures to support the jailed activist in Saudi and delivered the petition to the United Nations. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.