Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi officials stepped up warnings Friday over a planned protest that will see women get behind the wheel to challenge male-only driving rules, saying that even online support for the demonstration could be grounds for arrest.
Women who obtained driver’s licenses abroad plan to drive Saturday as part of the protest in Saudi Arabia. Though no specific Saudi law bans women from driving, powerful clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the kingdom’s ruling monarchy enforce the rule.
Saudi Arabia has adopted some reforms in recent years, including allowing women to sit on the national advisory council and a decision by King Abdullah to permit women to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015.
But the driving ban appears to retain the backing of senior clerics, who also refuse to amend codes such as requiring women to obtain a male guardian’s approval to travel. Clerics warn that “licentiousness” will spread if women drive.
The kingdom’s first major driving protest came in 1995. Some 50 women who drove their cars were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. In June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel and drove in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving.
Campaigners hope to bring out bigger numbers Saturday. The Internet has been a key tool in organizing the demonstration, similar to the one staged last year.
Friday’s edition of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat quoted Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Turki al-Faisal as saying cyber-dissident laws could apply to anyone supporting the women-driving campaign.
Conviction on the charge can bring up to five-year prison sentences and stiff fines, the article quoted a Saudi consultant on cyber laws, Marwan al-Ruwqi, as saying.
Mention of the strict Saudi laws against online political dissent significantly broadens the possible fallout from the planned campaign.
On Wednesday, al-Faisal warned in a statement of police crackdowns against “disturbing public order.” The statement was issued after some 150 clerics and religious scholars protested outside a royal palace, saying Saudi authorities were doing nothing to stop women from flouting the driving ban.
A prominent cleric also caused a stir when he said last month that medical studies show that driving a car harms a woman’s ovaries.
Those opposed to the campaign have also used social media to attack women activists or have urged people to harass female drivers. Some leaders of the campaign say they received phone calls from authorities emphasizing their warnings.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said the main website of the women-driving effort, oct26driving.org, was blocked early Friday and replaced with the message: “Drop the leadership of Saudi women.”
The women activists still plan to defy the driving ban, despite having their campaign website hacked and receiving repeated threats from the authorities, Amnesty said.
“Saudi Arabian authorities use the excuse that society at large is behind the ban and claim that the law does not discriminate against women. But at the same time they continue to harass and intimidate women activists,” said Said Boumedouha, acting director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. supports “the full inclusion of women in Saudi society.”
“That would, of course, include driving,” she said.