RIYADH Oct 24 Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry
has contacted organisers of a campaign to end the ban on women
driving and told them they will be punished if they go on
defying the male-only road rules, some of the campaign leaders
said on Thursday.
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.
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 sharia law
or its traffic code.
Saudi Arabia frequently earns bad international publicity
over the issue, but any change in the effective ban on women
driving might ignite the wrath of religious hardliners.
On Wednesday the Interior Ministry issued a statement
reitering that it was illegal for women to drive, but the
authorities now appear to be stepping up their efforts to quash
the campaign by individually contacting women involved.
"He said he was calling on behalf of (Interior Minister)
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and that I and any other woman should
not drive and if we are caught we will be punished," said one of
the campaign organisers.
The woman said she now planned not to drive on Saturday,
although she still supported the campaign and had previously
filmed herself behind the wheel in the city.
Another woman involved in the campaign, who also asked to
remain anonymous, said she still planned to go ahead.
The Interior Ministry telephone calls follow a small protest
by a group of conservative clerics demanding government action
against the women. One of them, Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, described
the campaign as a "conspiracy".
A ministry spokesman could not immediately be reached to
confirm that the body had contacted the women.
Women who have driven in the past have often been 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 or staging political protests,
which are illegal in the absolute monarchy.
The campaigners say that by driving on Saturday they will
not be staging a political protest, as they have not asked women
to drive together in groups or to congregate in one place, even
if they are in violation of traffic rules.
"The concerned authorities will enforce the law against all
the violators with firmness and force," said Wednesday's
Interior Ministry statement.
The ministry's spokesman, Major-General Mansour Turki, told
Reuters the statement applied to women driving individually as
well as in groups and that it was not meant to refer only to
Saturday, but to women driving at any time.
He said it also would apply to protests by groups opposed to
women driving. Turki said the prosecution service would decide
whether to charge women drivers with traffic violations or more
Officals have often in the past said the driving ban is in
place because Saudi society wants it there. Supporters of
Saturday's campaign say they want to show by driving without
provoking public anger that society has changed.
They point to a recent move by some women in the kingdom's
Shoura Council, a quasi-parliament appointed by the king to
advise on policy, to challenge the ban, and to Saudi newspaper
columns that argue women should be able to drive.
"The government now is in an odd position. They aren't
against women driving and yet they're preventing women driving.
It's very awkward to be in this position," said Khalid
al-Dakhil, a Saudi political science professor and columnist for
the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; editing by Sami Aboudi and