Saudi authorities warned Wednesday that police will respond to a planned "Day of Female Driving" on Saturday by fully implementing laws against "actions that disturb social peace."
But organizers of the women's defiant road rally said they read the official statement from the Interior Ministry not to be directed at them but at conservative supporters of the ban on women drivers, who have called for their own public protest against the driving event.
The statement issued by the Interior Ministry and carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said police "will implement regulations against all violators strictly."
The vow to enforce laws against unauthorized gatherings and protests was prompted, the news agency said, by "rumors exchanged over social networks and some media outlets calling for congregations and marches against 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," the Saudi Press Agency quoted the government statement as saying.
Tamador Alyami, one of the organizers of the women's drive-in, said on her blog in a post earlier this month that Saudi women have been "emboldened with the support of Saudi King Abdullah."
The ruling monarch gave Saudi women the right to vote in 2011 and in January appointed 30 women to the 150-member Shura Consultative Council. Despite the gender boost from the monarch, a proposal by three of the new women delegates to put the driving ban up for discussion was nixed by the male majority on the advisory body.
Saudi women first made a public demand for the right to drive in 1990, when 47 were arrested, jailed, fired from their jobs and had their passports confiscated, Alyami recalled in her announcement of Saturday's replay. The protest led to the Saudi royal then in charge of the Interior Ministry issuing a fatwa, or edict, prohibiting women from driving.
A second driving-day demonstration in 2011 was met with a more lenient reaction, Alyami recalled, with the women simply required to sign statements that they wouldn't drive again.
Those planning to take part in Saturday's rallies in Jeddah, Riyadh and elsewhere have drivers' licenses obtained abroad, as the Saudi government doesn't offer instruction, testing or vehicle operation permits to women, Alyami said.
Saudi women pushing for lifting the ban have been making videos of themselves driving at home and abroad, she noted, and posting them on YouTube and other social media sites to encourage other women to join the movement.
The gathering momentum for women's driving rights has instigated pushback from conservatives. On Tuesday, 200 Muslim clerics appealed to the royal court in Jeddah to prevent the driving event, Arabic-language www.sabq.org reported, quoting the head of the League of Muslim Scholars.
Alyami said on her blog that the head of the kingdom's morality squad, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, had instructed its members "not to chase after any car driven by a female," a changed posture she told her followers must have been by order of "higher authorities."