RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian women were given the right to drive last week after nearly three decades of campaigning, but some activists say that breakthrough has come with a price: their silence.
While the royal decree ending the ban on women driving has been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom, some women say they have been cowed into not speaking about it - a charge the government denies.
Four women who previously participated in protests against the ban told Reuters they had received phone calls instructing them not to comment on the decree. Two women said around 25 activists had received such calls.
As Saudi Arabia pushes through reforms over the objections of conservatives, the leadership is trying to modernise without losing the support of its traditional base.
Some Islamist clerics seen by the government as dabbling in politics have been detained after an apparent crackdown on potential opponents of the kingdom’s rulers last month which now appears to have paved the way for lifting the driving ban.
Activists and analysts say the government is also keen to avoid rewarding activism, which is forbidden in the absolute monarchy, and seems determined not to antagonise religious sensitivities.
But seemingly inviolable Saudi norms are being turned on their head, with some religious clerics who supported policies such as bans on women driving and gender mixing now apparently changing their minds.
The changes suggest a possible shift in the power balance towards the Al Saud ruling family away from the Wahhabi clerical establishment.
In the first protest against the driving ban, in 1990, 47 women drove around central Riyadh for nearly an hour until they were detained by the religious police, then fired from their jobs and barred from travelling.
One participant, a university professor now in her 60s, recalls that act of defiance which sparked a new era in the Saudi women’s rights movement.
“On the first loop, we were not caught. But the second time, we were caught. I think somebody called. I remember one man, he was in front of us in his car. He went like this,” she said, wagging her finger. “That meant he didn’t want us to drive.”
More protests followed, but the government has not acknowledged the activists’ efforts since ending the ban.
Activists who said they had received phone calls ordering them to remain silent spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
“He was very straightforward. He said you are ordered not to comment on the women driving issue or procedures will be taken against you. You are held accountable for anything posted after this call,” one of the callers said.
Another woman, Tamador al-Yami, apologised on Twitter for being unable to comment “for reasons beyond my control”.
“Everybody knows.. everybody who follows.. we don’t need to say it out loud :)” she wrote. “& it doesn’t matter, what matters is the win, and we won”.
The government says the allegations are false and cites women who have spoken out, with op-eds in the New York Times and CNN.
“No one has been censored or warned about expressing their views,” an Information Ministry statement said. “Saudi Arabia welcomes both the enormous interest and contributions to the debate, especially those from our own citizens.”
Ending the driving ban is part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform programme aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, is the face of that change. Many young Saudis regard his recent ascent to power as proof their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women’s progress.
Yet the crown prince has been noticeably absent from the rollout of the new driving policy, which was presented to the media in Washington rather than Riyadh.
That may reflect the riskiness of the move, which was welcomed by many but met with confusion and outrage by others.
Saudi media has tagged news about the ban: “The king wins with women driving”. Police however issued two arrest warrants over the weekend for men who posted threats against women drivers.
Activist Hala al-Dosari, who lives in Boston, said lifting the ban had also been intended to silence women activists.
“The monarchy wants to be central for the Saudi state inside and outside as the owners of any reform. They are not willing to have their position contested,” she said.
“How can they convince the world they are the patrons of modernisation when the women of Saudi Arabia are challenging those notions?”
Eman al-Nafjan, who participated in a driving protest in 2011, said she was relieved the ban had been lifted but frustrated that the role of women activists had been overlooked.
“Were our efforts the reason the ban was lifted? Or was it a decision that had been made regardless of our struggles?” she wrote the day after the royal decree.
The professor who took part in the 1990 protest said her family had not expressed strong opinions about her activism all those years ago, but one relative now thinks she is a celebrity.
“My niece thinks I’m someone special,” she said. “She says, ‘Oh, auntie! What you did!’”
Writing by Stephen Kalin; editing by Giles Elgood