Saudi warns women against defying driving ban

RIYADH (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 conservative Muslim kingdom.

"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 said.

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".

Mr Turki insisted that "all gatherings are prohibited" in Saudi Arabia.

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.

Saudi women, forced to cover from head to toe, need permission from a male guardian to travel, work and marry.