RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry has contacted organizers of a campaign to end the ban on women driving and told them they will be punished if they go on defying the male-only road rules, some of the campaign leaders said on Thursday.
The women organizing the campaign have been posting online footage of themselves driving in Saudi cities, and have called on Saudi women with foreign driving licenses to get behind the wheel on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia frequently earns bad international publicity over the issue, but any change in the effective ban on women driving might ignite the wrath of religious hardliners.
On Wednesday the Interior Ministry issued a statement reiterating that it was illegal for women to drive, but the authorities now appear to be stepping up their efforts to quash the campaign by individually contacting women involved.
"He said he was calling on behalf of (Interior Minister) Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and that I and any other woman should not drive and if we are caught we will be punished," said one of the campaign organizers.
The woman said she now planned not to drive on Saturday, although she still supported the campaign and had previously filmed herself behind the wheel in the city.
Another woman involved in the campaign, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she still planned to go ahead.
The Interior Ministry telephone calls follow a small protest by a group of conservative clerics demanding government action against the women. One of them, Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, described the campaign as a "conspiracy".
A ministry spokesman could not immediately be reached to confirm that the body had contacted the women.
Women who have driven in the past have often been charged with the relatively minor offence of driving without a valid Saudi license, which are not issued to women in the kingdom.
But some have also been charged with more serious offences, such as disturbing public order or staging political protests, which are illegal in the absolute monarchy.
The campaigners say that by driving on Saturday they will not be staging a political protest, as they have not asked women to drive together in groups or to congregate in one place, even if they are in violation of traffic rules.
"The concerned authorities will enforce the law against all the violators with firmness and force," said Wednesday's Interior Ministry statement.
The ministry's spokesman, Major-General Mansour Turki, told Reuters the statement applied to women driving individually as well as in groups and that it was not meant to refer only to Saturday, but to women driving at any time.
He said it also would apply to protests by groups opposed to women driving. Turki said the prosecution service would decide whether to charge women drivers with traffic violations or more serious offences.
Officials have often in the past said the driving ban is in place because Saudi society wants it there. Supporters of Saturday's campaign say they want to show by driving without provoking public anger that society has changed.
They point to a recent move by some women in the kingdom's Shoura Council, a quasi-parliament appointed by the king to advise on policy, to challenge the ban, and to Saudi newspaper columns that argue women should be able to drive.
"The government now is in an odd position. They aren't against women driving and yet they're preventing women driving. It's very awkward to be in this position," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political science professor and columnist for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; editing by Sami Aboudi and Alistair Lyon)