RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA—Saudi activists said more than 60 women claimed to have answered their call on Saturday to get behind the wheel in a rare show of defiance against a ban on female driving in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Saudi professor and campaigner Aziza Youssef said the group has received 13 videos and another 50 phone messages from women showing or claiming they had driven. She said they have no way to verify the messages.
If the numbers are accurate, this year’s campaign is the most successful effort yet by Saudi women demanding the right to drive. Youssef said they have not received any reports of arrests or women being ticketed by police.
A security official said that authorities did not arrest or fine any female drivers on Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Youssef said she and four other prominent women activists received phone calls this week from a top official with close links to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, warning them not to drive on Saturday, the day the campaign set for women’s driving.
She also said that “two suspicious cars” have been following her everywhere all day. “I don’t know from which party they are from. They are not in a government car,” she said.
Though no specific Saudi law bans women from driving, women are not issued licenses. They mostly rely on drivers or male relatives to move around.
Powerful clerics who hold far-reaching influence over the monarchy enforce the driving ban, warning that breaking it will spread “licentiousness.” A prominent cleric caused a stir when he said last month that medical studies show that driving a car harms a woman’s ovaries.
The kingdom’s first major driving protest came in 1990 when some 50 women drove their cars. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. In June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in several cities in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving.
The atmosphere appeared more tolerant this year and state newspapers for the first time have run near daily commentary on the issue. Reforms made by the monarchy since the last 2011 driving campaign may have readied the deeply conservative nation for change. Changes include 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.
May Al Sawyan, a 32 year-old mother of two and an economic researcher, told The Associated Press that she drove from her home in Riyadh to the grocery store and back.
Like other female drivers defying the ban in Saudi Arabia, Al Sawyan said she has obtained a driver’s license from abroad.
“I am very happy and proud that there was no reaction against me,” she said. “There were some cars that drove by. They were surprised, but it was just a glance. It is fine … They are not used to seeing women driving here.”
In the run-up to the Oct. 26 driving campaign, Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki warned that anyone disturbing public order would be dealt with forcefully. That same language was used in charges levied against a female driver in 2011.
Women have been posting videos almost daily of themselves driving since the campaign’s website was launched in late September, enraging conservatives in the country who accused the government of not doing anything to stop them from flouting the ban. In one incident this month, two women were pulled over by police who made them sign a letter stating they would not drive or be in the car with a female driver. Their husbands were called to pick them up.
Ultraconservative clerics, angry that the government is not cracking down harder, protested earlier in the week against the online petition campaign, which claims to have more than 16,000 signatures. The account’s website, oct26driving.org, and official English language YouTube account were hacked on Friday, according to activists.
The four-minute video uploaded Saturday of Al Sawyan showed her wearing sunglasses and her face was visible. Her hair was covered by the traditional black headscarf worn by Saudi women.
Al Sawyan said she was prepared for the risk of detention if caught. She said she was far enough from a police car that she was not spotted.
“I just took a small loop. I didn’t drive for a long way, but it was fine. I went to the grocery store,” she said.
Her husband and family waited at home and called her nervously when she arrived at the store to check on her, she said. She drove with a local female television reporter in the car. They were both without male relatives in the vehicle, which in itself defies the country’s strict norms requiring women to have a male guardian in public.
Deputy editor-in-chief of the state-backed newspaper Saudi Gazette, Somayya Jabarti, said she envies her male co-workers who can jump in their cars and leave the office while she has to co-ordinate ahead of time for a driver or relative.
“The struggle is more that people should have the option to choose,” she said. “The logo of this current driving campaign is that women’s driving is a choice. “