In the past year, they have lost jobs, friends, social standing, reputations and they have been imprisoned, shunned and — in a few cases — even received death threats.
However, women in Saudi Arabia were over the weekend preparing once again to risk arrest and even flogging to drive cars in defiance of the country’s ban.
It was on June 17 last year that about 100 women took part in the first demonstration organized by underground civil disobedience campaigns Women2Drive and I Will Drive My Own Car.
Many were arrested and jailed. One woman’s sentence of 10 lashes was revoked only after the king intervened. It was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested after demonstrating in cars.
On Wednesday, two founders of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, 33, and Najla Hariri, 45, posted an open letter with 600 signatories to Saudi King Abdullah, appealing once more for an end to the ban on women driving.
The letter said: “Our initiative is not aimed at violating laws.”
Yesterday, women with international driving licenses were being urged to flout the ban, but to make sure they do it respectfully, wearing the legally required full Islamic dress and displaying a picture of the king.
Campaigners want men to show their support by traveling in the passenger seat with their wives, mothers and sisters. They are also asking women to flood the traffic department with driving license applications.
“We only want to enjoy the right to drive like all women over the world,” Hariri said.
“It is really hard for women to take such a stand for the right of driving,” she added. “But they will do so because we are really in need of this. So many women are struggling to manage their lives without the right to drive, it is not easy.”
It was in May last year that Hariri, fed up with having to find a male relative to ferry her and her children around, began to drive herself. After hearing about Hariri driving on Facebook, al-Sharif, a divorced mother, followed suit a few days later, posting a video of herself on YouTube. Al-Sharif was imprisoned by the religious police for more than a week.
A year after she won recognition for defying the ban, al-Sharif has been forced to resign from her job at Saudi’s government-owned Aramco oil company and has lost her housing. Family members have left the country out of fears for their safety.
In the past, Abdullah has been quoted as saying “the day will come” when women are allowed to drive. Since last year’s campaign, he has promised to allow women to vote and to stand in certain elections by 2015.
“A lot of Westerners don’t realize that the king and the government are a lot more progressive than the people,” Saudi writer Lubna Hussein said. “They have to walk a tightrope because the people may want to be modern, but they don’t want to be Western.”