A mass drive-in protest by Saudi women scheduled for Saturday has been threatened with reprisals by the authorities. But some women are still defying the ban, posting YouTube videos showing them behind the wheel.
While Saudi Arabia does not officially have a law prohibiting women from driving, but its government will not issue driver’s licenses to women. Conservative Islamic scholars have argued that women should be forbidden to drive because it would erode traditional gender-segregation practices. One cleric has even argued that driving can damage a woman’s ovaries and push her pelvis upwards.
The October 26 driving campaign is just the latest organized protest of women defying the de facto driving ban. But this week some activists said they’d received telephone calls from men claiming to represent Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, warning of crackdowns should the protest go forward. Interior ministry spokesperson Mansour Al-Turki told CNN the phone calls were made to help activists understand that the laws of the country would be “fully enforced” on Saturday.
The implied theat prompted some women to endorse new tactics in the driving campaign.
"Out of caution and respect for the interior ministry's warnings ... we are asking women not to drive tomorrow and to change the initiative from an October 26 campaign to an open driving campaign," activist Najla al-Hariri told AFP news agency on Friday, according to Al Jazeera.
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But on Saturday, some women were still hitting the road in protest and posting videos on YouTube:
The protest drive of Mai Al Swayan, an economics researcher, took her to the grocery store and back. She told the BBC she knew of at least three other women that drove on Saturday.
Though other drivers saw her out on the road, “no one approached me," Al Swayan told the BBC.
Meanwhile, the driving campaign’s website was hacked on Saturday morning. The page now displays a black background with red lightning bolts, accompanied by a message from the hacker: “I am against women driving in the land of the two holy shrines.” Another hacker struck on Friday, according to Softpedia, defacing the site with the message “drop the leadership of Saudi women.”
While the government is holding firm on the de facto driving ban, women’s rights have been slowly improving in Saudi Arabia in other arenas. In 2015, women will be able to both vote and campaign in local elections. Saudi Arabia also sent two female athletes – a runner and a judo fighter – to the London Olympics in 2012.
Saudi monarch King Abdullah also recently allowed women to join the Shura Council, an advisory body consisting of 150 people appointed by the monarch. The Shura Council cannot actually pass laws, but can propose ones to the king.
“Almost immediately, many of the council's women announced they would use their new platform to push for driving rights for women, despite heavy criticism from conservative religious figures,” foreign policy blogger Max Fisher wrote at the Washington Post.
Some women are heartened by the growing number of Saudi men who are supporting their campaign. The ban isn’t just restrictive to women; it’s inconvenient for men too, who frequently have to drive female family members around or pay for a chaffeur.