WHEN a group of Saudi women first took to the kingdom's roads to flout its ban on female drivers, they publicised their protest by fax and videocassette. The 47 participants suffered fines, travel bans, social ostracism and, in some cases, the loss of government jobs. The ban itself, 23 years and many protests later, remains. But much else has changed.
The campaigners behind a drive-along protest scheduled for October 26th have put it on Twitter, Facebook and a slick website. Their petition demanding that the government issue driving licences to women has gathered close to 17,000 signatures. A call for women to upload videos of themselves driving has already gathered dozens of clips. The footage of headscarved ladies navigating suburban traffic may scarcely be thrilling, but some have scored over 100,000 web viewings.
For the first time, too, women have allies in government. Earlier this year King Abdullah named 30 female members to the previously all-male Shura Council, the royally-appointed proto-parliament. Three of the new women in it have voiced open support for an end to the driving ban.
But the campaign's opponents have changed tactics, too. Official monitors have blocked its website. Tweeters in favour of the ban, derided by campaigners in the kingdom as "eggs" for leaving blank the oval space for their own portrait that the messaging service provides, are putting out reams of negative comment. Some have sought to dampen support for women wanting to drive by spreading false rumours of an imminent government move to lift the ban.
More traditional foes of change have also been active. On October 23rd a group of 200-odd clerics gathered outside the royal court to denounce what they described as a "conspiracy" to put women behind the wheel. Last month Sheikh Salah al-Luhaydan, a well-known cleric who also practises psychology, claimed on a popular Saudi website that it has been scientifically proved that driving "affects the ovaries" and leads to clinical disorders in the children of women who are foolish enough to drive.