Oct. 26, 2013 10:10 a.m. ET
RIYADH—Dozens of Saudi women took to the roads around Saudi Arabia on Saturday, defying a new surge of warnings from the government, mosque pulpits and radio channels to drop their challenge to a de facto ban on driving by women.
By midafternoon Saturday, about 40 women had defied the ban by driving in cities around the kingdom, according to their text messages and emails to other supporters of a recently-revived grassroots campaign for the legalization of Saudi women’s driving. A half-dozen posted videos online purportedly showing themselves driving Saturday.
Although no law explicitly prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia, the government has refused to give them licenses.
Campaign organizers had set Saturday as a main day for women drivers to challenge the ban by driving themselves about on errands.
In total, more than 100 women countrywide have reported taking the wheel since women revived a more than two-decade effort to roll back Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on women’s driving, according to Eman al-Nafjan, a supporter of the campaign in the capital, Riyadh. Videos posted on YouTube this week have shown Saudi fathers filming daughters at the wheel and Saudi sons teaching mothers to drive.
In Riyadh, May al-Sawyan was one of those driving Saturday. She posted a video on YouTube showing her in sunglasses and head scarf, coolly steering her family car past fast-food restaurants and passing cars as she drove to and from a grocery store.
Other would-be women drivers played cat-and-mouse Saturday with men they took to be state security officers tailing the women to discourage them from driving.
In Riyadh, 60-year-old Madehah al-Ajroush tried throughout Saturday morning to shake off men in plainclothes and civilian vehicles who zigzagged behind her as her driver drove her from a coffee shop, to a McDonalds, and then to a shopping mall.
Ms. Ajroush, who drove in the kingdom’s previous women’s-driving campaign in 1990 and 2011, finally gave up on evading suspected security agents long enough to find a calm area to drive. At the mall, she ducked into a toy shop, then walked up to two men who had followed her into and through the mall for the past two hours.
“Hello. Today is October 26″—the main driving-day set by campaigners against the driving ban—”and I just wanted you to have this gift,” said Ms. Ajroush, holding out a newly purchased yellow toy car to the men. Scowling, one of the men snatched the toy car from her hand, she said.
It wasn’t known if the men actually were the Interior Ministry’s mabahith security agents, as she suspected.
Meanwhile, many women heeded warnings from Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry Thursday and Friday that the government would “fully and firmly” enforce the country’s ban against women’s driving.
The day before Saturday’s driving day, many Saudi clerics used Friday’s weekly sermons to condemn the idea of women motorists. Lifting the ban, and increasing women’s freedom of movement, would lead to increased premarital sex and adultery, some worshipers quoted Saudi clerics as saying.
Radio news channels amplified the government warnings Friday and Saturday. Broadcasters spoke of a “conspiracy” behind the women’s driving campaign.
In the past, including during the 1990 and 2011 driving campaigns, women who defied the ban have occasionally been detained, fired from their jobs, or banned from travel. In 2011, a judge sentenced a female driver to flogging. The sentence was never carried out.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, in his few public comments on the matter, has linked the ban on women driving to the country’s conservative culture, and said that Saudi women will drive one day. All protests and political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, and security officials said this week that enforcing the ban is part of protecting the monarchy against sedition.
The Interior Ministry’s active enforcement of the ban signaled that the monarch—responsible for all top decisions in Saudi Arabia—wasn’t yet ready to change the status quo.
Opponents of the driving ban say lack of mobility causes particular hardship for Saudi women who cannot afford to hire a driver and have no male relative at hand to drive them. Conservative mores also often discourage women from taking taxis or any of the country’s spotty public transportation.
No confrontations were immediately reported Saturday between women drivers and authorities.
By afternoon, there also was no sign of a threatened countercampaign by conservatives supporting the driving ban. About 100 clerics had rallied at Riyadh’s royal court on Tuesday to denounce what one called “the conspiracy of women’s driving.”
Opponents of Saudi women driving always intimated that foreign forces and conspiracies were behind the women’s driving campaigns, said Ms. Ajroush.
“In 1990,” according to opponents, “it was Saddam Hussein who told us to drive.” Now, it is “the Americans” seen by driving opponents as being agents behind the driving campaign. “They never give us the credit of the initiative,” she said.