One month ago a group of Saudi women activists declared that on October 26, 2013 was going to be a protest against the ban on women who drive. This will not be the first such action. In the 23 years that have passed since the original similar Saudi protest have been a number of others, the most recent just two years ago.
So the question is whether this time anything will be different. No doubt that this is the most technologically savvy of the various pro-women driving protests. Campaigners have posted protest information on Twitter and Facebook, and they’ve developed a slick website. Moreover their petition demanding that the government issue them driver’s licenses has gathered well over 17,000 signatures.
But if you think that the government has been cowed, think again. Officials have blocked the activists’ website. Ridiculing them online has become commonplace. Conservative clerics have attacked the “conspiracy of women driving.” Saudi officials have warned even online supporters, saying that cyber-laws banning political dissent would be enforced in this case. (Conviction can bring a prison sentence of up to five years.) And Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry spokesman declared that “All violations will be dealt with – whether demonstrations or women driving. Not just on the 26th – before and after, at all times.”
This is a classic case of authoritarian leaders resisting increasingly restive followers. In such a circumstance the authorities have no choice but to threaten punishment, lest the protest get out of hand. How this particular day of protest will come out remains obviously to be seen. But what we do know now is this. First, it is highly unlikely that in the short term change will be created. Second, it is inconceivable that over the long term Saudi women will be denied a right that women elsewhere in the world take for granted – the ordinary, quotidian right to plant themselves behind the wheel of a car.