LAST Nov. 6, about 50 Saudi Arabian women, mostly from prominent families, met at the local Safeway in the capital city of Riyadh. They dismissed their drivers and drove their cars away in a convoy. Most of the women had learned to drive while living overseas, as it is against Saudi custom for women to get behind the wheel. The women were detained and several have reportedly been fired from their teaching positions at the women's university. The religious establishment promptly issued a decree formally forbidding women from driving. Previously, custom rather than decree kept women out of the driver's seat.
Along with their male relatives, the women are accused of renouncing Islam, an offense punishable by death. Their husbands have had their passports revoked.
Although many Middle Eastern observers dispute her conclusion, Judith Caesar says the protest was ``part of a general liberal movement in Saudi Arabia.'' Ms. Caesar, who taught at a women's university in Riyadh for five years, says the women ``wouldn't have acted without the backing of their families.''
A small but influential group of elite, Westernized Saudis are challenging the conservative Muslim monarchy's restrictive laws. (Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country where women do not have the freedom to drive.)
``One of the problems that the Saudis are facing is that they want an educated population,'' says Sandra Mackey, author of ``Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom'' (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). ``They will finance women going to the West to study. But sometimes you really get a problem when these people come back and are put back into the veil.''
In this Muslim theocracy, women must be covered from head to foot in public; they must seek permission from their fathers or husbands before leaving the country; they cannot go out alone or be in the company of men other than their relatives.
``In many places in the Islamic world, various interpretations of Islam have changed the status of women,'' Ms. Mackey says. ``But Saudi Arabia was so isolated for so long that it really didn't have any of these outside influences.''
Not until the oil boom of 1973, when oil prices rose steeply, did the country open up to outside influences.
With the influx of oil money, the kingdom's social values are being strained by modernization. Some argue that the driving protest was prompted by increased talk of change since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and by the presence of coalition forces in Saudi Arabia.
CAESAR doesn't view the Western presence as a factor in the protest. The women ``didn't need Americans to show them that they could drive,'' she says. ``It wasn't just that they saw these American women soldiers driving around in their jeeps and said, `Oh, I bet I could do that, too.' It came out of the changing political situation in Saudi Arabia and the way the regime is somewhat destabilized now by the American presence.''
Reputation and family honor are the bedrock of Saudi society. Many traditional customs and taboos revolve around protecting the family and a woman's reputation.
``We always make the assumption that these women are just sitting there waiting for Western women to come liberate them,'' Mackey says. ``That's just not true.'' The middle- and upper-class women she knew in Saudi Arabia wanted some changes in their society. ``The main thing Saudi women object to is not being able to drive,'' she says. ``But they did not want a Western lifestyle. In fact, they, in many ways, pity Western women because they think that we don't have any security and that we don't have stable families.''
What they're looking for, suggests Mackey, is a balance between their restrictive customs and the permissiveness of the West. ``There is a lot of confusion among the women,'' she says. ``They're really torn about how they want society to change.''
Despite the monarchy's immediate crackdown, most observers say Saudi women will eventually see their demands met. The elite group of women who stepped on the gas last fall may have helped pave the way for Saudi women to make themselves heard.
``There are some really sharp Saudi women,'' Mackey says, ``and they're going to get some changes made as soon as they decide where they want to go.''