RIYADH - Saudi activists have urged women to defy a traditional driving ban and get behind the wheel on Saturday, the second day of a visit by US President Barack Obama.

‘We have fixed a day every month to pursue our campaign,’ activist Madiha al-Ajroush told AFP Friday, insisting that it was a coincidence their latest protest and Obama’s visit came on the same day. Saturday’s action is part of a campaign launched on October 26, when 16 women activists were stopped by police for driving.

‘We urge women to take the wheel tomorrow,’ activist Aziza al-Youssef said. The campaign has gained momentum since 2011 despite activists being arrested for flouting the ban. Before Obama arrived in Riyadh, dozens of US lawmakers urged him to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s ‘systematic human rights violations”, including the ban on women drivers. Rights group Amnesty International also urged Obama to take a strong stance on the issue by appointing a woman chauffeur while in Riyadh, and to meet activists. “As well as appointing a woman driver during his visit, President Obama should try to meet Saudi women who have defied the driving ban,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty asked Obama to “raise the plight of women” in the kingdom, pointing out that in addition to not being able to drive, they continue to face “entrenched discrimination” on many levels. “Under its restrictive guardianship system, women need the permission of a male guardian to get married, travel, undergo certain types of surgery, accept paid employment or enrol in higher education,” it said in a statement on Friday. Activists say allowing women to drive will have a domino effect for civil rights in Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is effectively the law of the land. Women must get permission from a male relative - usually a husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son - to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.

“And this is what scares people: That women will be out of the total control of men,” al-Sada said. Though there is no law on the books that explicitly bars women from driving, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the traffic police in Saudi Arabia, will not issue driver’s licenses to women.

 So far, the ministry has warned that violators will be dealt with firmly.

Police have also privately told the campaigners not to speak to the media, warned them not to drive and followed some around for days.

Women caught driving have been forced to sign pledges not to do it again. If they are caught again, they are pressured to sign another pledge. A male relative is called to pick them up from a police station or on the side of the road. The men are then made to sign pledges they will not let the women drive. In one case, a woman’s car was confiscated and has not been returned to her since January. In another, writer and schoolteacher Tariq al-Mubarak was detained for several days and interrogated when police found out that the mobile phone number used by organizers was registered under his name.

Still, the government response is more muted than in the past. During the first major protest, in 1990, around 50 women drove. They were jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated and lost their jobs. Their male relatives were also barred from traveling for six months.

Then in June 2011, about 40 women got behind the wheel in a protest sparked when a woman was arrested after posting a video of herself driving. One woman was later arrested and sentenced to 10 lashes. The king overturned the sentence. Madeha al-Ajroush, who was part of the first driving campaign more than two decades ago, said she wants Obama to address human rights while in Saudi Arabia. “We’re not oil; we’re also people,” al-Ajroush said. “The humanity of Saudi Arabia needs to be looked at seriously.”