In the past year, they have lost jobs, friends, social standing, reputations and they have been imprisoned, shunned and – in a few cases – even received death threats.
But women in Saudi Arabia were this weekend preparing once again to risk arrest and even flogging to drive cars in defiance of the country’s ban.
It was on 17 June last year that about 100 women took part in the first demonstration organised by underground civil disobedience campaigns Women2Drive and I Will Drive My Own Car.
Many were arrested and jailed. One woman’s sentence of 10 lashes was revoked only after the king intervened. It was the largest mass action since November 1990, when 47 Saudi women were arrested after demonstrating in cars.
On Wednesday, two founders of the movement, Manal al-Sharif, 33, and Najla Hariri, 45, posted an open letter with 600 signatories to King Abdullah, appealing once more for an end to the ban on women driving. The letter said: “Our initiative is not aimed at violating laws.”
On Sunday, women with international driving licences are being urged to flout the ban, but to make sure they do it respectfully, wearing the legally required full Islamic dress and displaying a picture of the king.
Campaigners want men to show their support by travelling in the passenger seat with their wives, mothers, and sisters. They are also asking women to flood the traffic department with driving licence applications.
“We only want to enjoy the right to drive like all women over the world,” Hariri told the Observer. “It is really hard for women to take such a stand for the right of driving,” she said. “But they will do so because we are really in need of this. So many women are struggling to manage their lives without the right to drive, it is not easy.”
It was in May 2011 that Hariri, fed up with having to find a male relative to ferry her and her children around, began to drive herself. After hearing about Hariri driving on Facebook, al-Sharif, a divorced mother, followed suit a few days later, posting a video of herself on YouTube. Al-Sharif was imprisoned by the religious police for more than a week.
This month, Al-Sharif was unable to join four other Arab women in Washington to receive a Vital Voices Leadership Award from an organisation founded by Hillary Clinton.
“The main reason for not being at the awards was [concern] for my family’s safety after receiving death threats from insane people,” al-Sharif tweeted.
A year after she won recognition for defying the ban, al-Sharif has been forced to resign from her job at Saudi’s government-owned Aramco oil company and has lost her housing. Family members have left the country out of fears for their safety.
In the past, King Abdullah, 87, has been quoted as saying “the day will come” when women are allowed to drive. Since last year’s campaign, he has promised to allow women to vote and to stand in certain elections by 2015.
But many are sceptical that the king’s announcement will herald a move towards equality in a society where discrimination remains entrenched – Saudi Arabia has come under attack for not allowing women athletes to participate in the London Olympics, although the governing Olympic body, the IOC, has refused calls to impose sanctions.
“A lot of westerners don’t realise that the king and the government are a lot more progressive than the people,” said Saudi writer Lubna Hussein.
“They have to walk a tightrope because the people may want to be modern but they don’t want to be western. This year’s driving campaign is much more subdued than last year’s because of apathy.”
She added: “It’s no coincidence that during the Arab spring Saudi’s neighbours were on fire, but it didn’t reach the kingdom. People are comfortable and it makes them numb. With every change, there is often an economic imperative, then change happens fast.
“In Saudi, everything runs smoothly. The drive ban is indefensible, ridiculous, but there is enough of a backlash from the population against the protests to keep it [the ban] in place.”
Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious body, the Shura Council, has widely publicised an academic study that claims allowing women to drive would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse.
Meanwhile, a campaign called My Guardian Knows What is Best for Me – which opposes calls for a more liberal approach to women’s rights, including women driving – has been started by a group of Saudi women.
That means the high personal price that is being paid by Hariri, al-Sharif and other women could be for nothing if the apathy Hussein refers to stops women driving in Saudi.
“I am very happy with the attention that we draw to our right to drive and I thank God that so many men are supporting us,” said Hariri. “I can’t say women are afraid, but of course they are worried – worried equally about the police and about their families.
“I hope that June 17 this year will bring us some good news regarding driving, because society’s awareness is so much better now and there is wider understanding that there is an alternative here,” she said.
“All of us have the dream that our country can and will become a supportive community for women, where men and women are treated equally.”