(WOMENSENEWS)–Five Saudi women who defied religious traditions by driving this week were detained by police in Jeddah on June 28, marking what may be a shift to harsher tactics by authorities who largely shrugged off the June 17 start of the driving campaign.

On June 29, it was not publicly known whether the women were still in police custody, according to news sources in Saudi Arabia.

News of all this was distributed via e-mail by Change.org, a politically progressive grassroots organization. Using social media to mobilize supporters, Change.org tabulates figures, issues press statements and rallies media attention for the Saudi women’s right-to-drive campaign.

It works side by side with other efforts–such as the Boston-based Honk for Saudi Women Driving–to keep the issue in the media headlights.

Change.org–with offices in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City– estimates that 50 Saudi women risked jail on June 17 by driving. The group claims that more than 100,000 people in 156 countries supported Women for Driving in Saudi Arabia, a coalition of Saudi women’s rights activists, via social networks.

A big reason for Change.org’s dedication to the Saudi women’s driving push is Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the group’s human rights editor. He made contacts with female activists in Saudi Arabia in 2009 when he was covering human rights as a journalist.

In a recent phone interview, Joffe-Walt said that when he caught wind of Saudi women organizing for the right to drive in May, he saw an opportunity for Change.org to help by harnessing international media attention.

For that, Eman Al-Nafjan, a pro-driving activist who authors Saudiwomen blog, expresses deep appreciation.

"The way I see it is that as a Saudi woman, if some one is going to support my human right . . . I’m going to say a big fat ‘thank you,’" she said in a phone interview with Women’s eNews. "Drawing attention to the campaign outside of Saudi Arabia . . . will keep it an issue inside of Saudi Arabia."

On the heels of the June 17 event, Joffe-Walt told Women’s eNews his top concern was sustaining international attention and interest.

One sign of that came on June 22, when Change.org launched a petition campaign to pressure Subaru, the Japan based automaker, to stop selling cars in the kingdom until women are allowed to drive. The site claims that more than 50,000 people have signed on.

"I’m not sure who will be courageous enough to get behind the wheel and deliver the petition to Subaru," Sara al-Haidar, an activist and student in Saudi Arabia, said in a phone interview. The threat of arrest is still very real for women involved in the campaign, she added.

Clinton, Ashton Voice Support

Saudi Women for Driving has earned statements of support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, news sources reported. 

The driving campaign is the leading edge of a wider push for autonomy and citizenship. Saudi women must be accompanied in public by a male relative, may not dine alone in restaurants and have fewer educational opportunities. They do not have the right to vote in all elections and they can’t travel outside Saudi Arabia without a male relative as a companion. Many work outside the home, but a driver’s weekly salary–of $300 or so–eats up their income.

Many Saudi activists see driving rights as an essential stepping stone towards future progress. "I can’t say I want a woman minister, I can’t say I want to see democracy . . . I can’t say all of these things without being able to drive a car," Eman al-Nafjan, said in a phone interview.

No Saudi law explicitly bans Saudi women from driving. It is part of a religious edict issued by the Islamic council that advises King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.

"This won’t be resolved until the King says so," said al-Nafjan.

Abdullah al- Alami, a Saudi writer and economist, said in an e-mail that he is encouraging an advisory group to the king to consider women’s right to drive. But he said any change must come from within. "I do not encourage getting outside groups involved in our internal affairs."

Facebook Friends

Boston free-lance journalist and activist Trisha Calvarese says she was drawn to the cause while covering the Middle East. "I literally just made some friends on Facebook," she said in a phone interview.

Calvarese launched a solidarity effort a few months ago — Honk for Saudi Women Driving–that calls on women around the world to post YouTube videos of themselves honking car horns in support.

After she posted a few "Honk" videos, a supporter from France offered to help. He and his team at Kinomap, a video-sharing platform site based in Douai, France, developed a smartphone application that supporters could use to upload "honk" videos to the "Honk for Saudi Women Driving" YouTube channel.

The channel’s roughly 50 videos so far include a dozen that Saudi women shot of themselves driving on June 17 and since then. Others come from supporters in Australia, Sweden and England.

Saudi women have conducted right-to-drive demonstrations before. Joffe-Walt recalled an occasion in 1990 when 47 women drove cars around Riyadh for a half hour. The drivers and their husbands were banned from leaving the country for a year and those with government jobs were suspended from working, NPR reported. In 2008, a now well-known Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha Al Huwaiderposted a YouTube of herself driving in the suburbs of Riyadh, said the AFP

May 22 Arrest

The latest effort began on May 22, when Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old single mother and computer technician working for an oil company, was arrested and detained in Riyadh, for posting videos of herself driving on YouTube.

These efforts got the most media attention globally, Joffe-Walt said, because campaigners turned to the Internet to spread information.

Given the distinctive restrictions on Saudi women, many activists decline to link women driving efforts to current revolutionary movements in the region. But no women were jailed for driving on June 17 and some activists say regional politics may help explain the government’s initially tolerant response.

One Saudi woman who drove with her mother for about 15 minutes during a rush hour demonstration on June 22, told Women’s eNews in a phone interview that police actually protected them from the hostility of some male drivers.

Until now, the mild official response could mean King Abdullah is biding his time and seeing how it plays out in the international community as well as in the Saudi religious establishment, said Joffe-Walt.

But the arrests of the five drivers this week heightens the suspense about how the kingdom will react.

After her release from jail on May 3, al-Sharif’s lawyer Adan al-Salah, said she voluntarily signed a pledge to end her Women2Drive campaign, which designated June 17 as the women’s day of driving. But Wajeha al-Huwaider, her close friend, told the Guardian she was "certain" silence was a condition of her release from nine days in prison.

Human Rights Watch reported May 22 that al-Sharif’s YouTube videos of herself driving had been removed from the Web and her phone, according to several news sources, had been turned off.

Al-Sharif’s video was preserved by anonymous supporters and can be found online

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Marley Gibbons is an editorial intern at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Al-Sharif’s video

Honk for Women Driving Campaign

Change.org Campaign

Support from Western political figures

1990 protest

2008, Wajiha