Saudi Arabia has warned that it will take measures against activists who go ahead with a planned weekend campaign to defy a ban on women drivers in the conservative Muslim kingdom.
The women organising the campaign have been posting online footage of themselves driving in Saudi cities, and have called on Saudi women with foreign driving licences to get behind the wheel on Saturday.
“It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support” of this cause, Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki told the AFP news agency.
October 26 is a day on which women in Saudi Arabia will say they are serious about driving and that this matter must be resolved
Activists have posted a message on social networks asking Saudi women, individually, to go behind the wheel, in a campaign in the world’s only country that bans women from driving.
The campaigners hope to take advantage of the ambiguous nature of the kingdom’s ban on women driving, which is not explicitly enshrined in either the kingdom’s Islamic law or its traffic code.
On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it would crack down against anyone who attempts to “disturb public peace” by congregating or marching “under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving”.
The Interior Ministry spokesman has insisted that “all gatherings are prohibited” in Saudi Arabia, but activists have repeatedly insisted throughout their campaign that no demonstrations will be held.
“October 26 is a day on which women in Saudi Arabia will say they are serious about driving and that this matter must be resolved,” activist Manal al-Sharif, one of the organisers of this Saturday’s campaign, told AFP news agency about the weekend protest.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged the Saudi authorities to respect the right of women to drive.
“It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, said.
Women who defied the ban in the past were charged with the relatively minor offence of driving without a valid Saudi licence, which are not issued to women in the kingdom.
But some have also been charged with more serious offences, such as disturbing public order, which is illegal in the monarchy.
In 1990, authorities stopped 47 women who got behind the wheel in a demonstration against the driving ban.
In 2011, the Dubai-based Sharif was arrested and held nine days for posting online a video of herself behind the wheel.
That year Saudi police arrested a number of women who defied the driving ban and forced them to sign a pledge not to drive again.
Saudi women need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.