RIYADH, October 24, 2013 (AFP) – Saudi Arabia on Thursday warned it will take measures against activists who go ahead with a planned weekend campaign to defy a ban on women drivers in the country.
“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 AFP.
Activists have called on social networks for Saudi women, individually, to go behind the wheel on Saturday, in a campaign in the world’s only country that bans women from driving.
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 laws of the kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters,” said the statement carried by the official SPA news agency.
It added that the interior ministry “will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators”.
Turki insisted that “all gatherings are prohibited” in Saudi Arabia.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International urged the Saudi authorities not to thwart the women’s right to drive, saying the ban was “demeaning”.
“It is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme head, Philip Luther.
“The driving ban is inherently discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately. It is completely unacceptable for the authorities to stand in the way of activists planning to campaign against it.
“Instead of repressing the initiative, the authorities must immediately lift the ban to ensure that women are never again arrested or punished simply for being behind the wheel of a car.”
Women who defied the law in the past ran into trouble with the authorities and were harassed by compatriots.
In 1990, authorities stopped 47 women who got behind the wheel in a demonstration against the driving ban
In 2011, activist Manal al-Sharif, one of the organisers of this Saturday’s campaign, 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.
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,” the Dubai-based Sharif has told AFP about the weekend protest.
She said women have begun responding to the call and over the past two weeks have posted videos online showing women already driving in Saudi Arabia.
With the exception of two women who were briefly stopped by police, authorities have so far not intervened to halt any of the female motorists.
Amnesty quoted one woman involved in the campaign as saying: “This is a natural right for us, a most simple and basic right, it relates to our freedom of movement… and give us a sense of control over our lives.”
Saudi women, some of whom are forced to cover themselves from head to toe, still need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.