Saudi women are mounting a major challenge to the bar on women drivers by planning a driving protest in two weeks and circulating an online petition, but one of the biggest backers was stopped by police Thursday while tweeting and photographing a female friend driving through the Saudi capital.
Eman Al Nafjan, who posts under the Twitter handle @Saudiwoman, posted video and photos of her friend, Ameerah al Muneef, driving through Riyadh on Thursday.
Those tweets came to an abrupt halt, however, after police, shown in one photo, stopped their car.
Reuters qotes activists as saying that al Muneef was taken to a police station, although it was not immediately clear whether she would face further action.
The incident comes amid a flurry of activity pushing the third major challenge in more than 25 years by female drivers chafing under the ban.
This week, three female members of Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council introduced a recommendation to the body to lift the ban on women driving.
Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran, who writes the Riyadh Bureau blog and tweets as @ahmed, notes that Councilwoman Latifah Ashaalan said in an interview with al-Hayat daily that the recommendation has nothing to do with the Oct. 26 protest campaign, but had been planned over several months.
She also told the newspaper that it is "shameful" that Saudi women are not allowed to drive despite holding senior positions in the government. She called the situation an "embarrassment" to the country.
The protest is set to take place in Riyadh and other cities in Saudi Arabia, according to the online petition titled "I support women drivers."
Saudi authorities have blocked the campaign website, but more than 15,000 people have already signed the petition, which demands that the government lift the ban or at minimum give a "a valid and legal justification" for the prohibition.
Women technically are not banned by Saudi law from driving, they are only prevented from getting Saudi driver's licenses or using foreign licenses. Because of the ban, Saudi women must rely on male relatives or chauffeurs to provide transportation.
Many women gearing up for the protest began testing the mood this week, getting behind the wheel and posting YouTube videos of their efforts. One YouTube site has been flooded with videos of women cruising along major highways and through the city.
Sheikh Abdulatif al-Sheikh, the head of the morality police, told Reuters last week that there was no text in the documents making up sharia law that bars women from driving.
One conservative Saudi Arabian cleric, however, reflected the rigidity toward change by arguing that women risked physical problems from driving.
'If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards," Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, a judicial adviser to an association of Gulf psychologists, told the website sabq.org.
He added, according to The Guardian, that women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put "reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions."
There have been two major challenges to the driving ban in past three decades. In 1990, police cracked down on 47 women drivers, firing many of the protesters from government jobs and barring them from traveling outside the country.
In 2011 a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving, Riyadh Bureau notes.
A larger protest by more than 50 women that same year, at the height of the Arab Spring, was largely ignored by police.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, general manager of the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya, weighed in on this issue in a column in the London-based Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, saying the prohibition is costly to Saudi Arabia both economically and politically.
"Don't forget that the picture no longer makes sense as the government sends tens of thousands of girls to study at prominent foreign universities, like Harvard and Cambridge, and then prevents them from driving cars in their own country," he writes.