Saudi women recall a day of driving

Women who protested in 1990 reunite as debate over women drivers returns.

Inside a rented hall on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, women slip on T-shirts over their silk and cotton blouses. "Yes to the empowerment of women," it reads. Nov. 6, 1990, is printed in red under tire tracks.

About 20 women have gathered privately here for their annual reunion to mark their defiance 15 years ago of this conservative kingdom's ban on female drivers.

Spurred by the Gulf War and the sight of female American GIs driving in Saudi Arabia, the group took to the road. They traveled the streets of Riyadh before being surrounded by curious onlookers and stopped by traffic cops, who took them into custody. They were released only after their male guardians signed statements that they would not drive again.

The women, many of whom are professors, had been prepared for a reprimand from the government, even some jail time. But it was the reaction of their students, their extended families, and many acquaintances that surprised them.

After the protest, thousands of leaflets with their names and their husbands' names - with "whores" and "pimps" scrawled next to them - circulated around the city. They were suspended from jobs, had passports confiscated, and were told not to speak to the press. Overnight, they became pariahs.

About a year after the protest, they returned to work and received their passports. But they were kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions.

But now, due to the courage of one member of Saudi Arabia's consultative Shura Council, a new reform-minded king, and a society forced into open debate following violence linked to Muslim extremists, the subject is once again taking center stage.

And the women have decided to break their silence.

'Driving is just a symbol'

"This year, everybody is discussing the issue of women driving. It's in the papers, on the Internet, in the Shura. It's not anymore the taboo it's been for the past 15 years," says Wafa al-Munif, sporting jeans and a colorful shirt under the black abaya women here must wear. "It's become a subject of debate in society at large," says Ms. Munif, who drove her husband's car in the driving demonstration.

At the gathering, the first that a journalist has been allowed to attend, they take turns speaking on the subject of this year's meeting: how to involve the younger generation in female empowerment.

"It was never about driving," businesswoman Aisha al-Mane says. "Driving is just a symbol."

She recounts what propelled them to take the wheel in the first place: "It was wartime and we were living in a war zone. We didn't want to be caught like sitting ducks if anything happened."

"I don't even like driving," says Ms. Mane, who received death threats and was forced to leave her home and job in Riyadh. "Even if I could drive now, I wouldn't; I much prefer to have a driver. It's about female empowerment and mobility. Women need incomes, they need jobs, and they need a way to get to those jobs," she says.

After 15 years of relative silence the debate was ignited this year when, during a routine review of traffic laws by the Shura Council, Mohammad al-Zulfa proposed a study on the pros and cons of allowing women to drive. The council buried the proposal, but not before the London-based al-Hayat newspaper got wind of it.

Since then, Mr. Zulfa, a retired history professor, has been flooded with more than 1,000 phone calls, faxes, and text messages from all over the country. About 60 percent were against the idea, he says, and advised him to repent and turn to God and "stop trying to impose Western and secular values in Saudi society." Some of the more vocal opponents threatened to kill him. But, he says, he will keep pressing the issue in the Shura Council until they agree to at least study the matter.

"I try to talk and reason with every one who calls me because I think I can convince them," says Zulfa. "I tell them there's nothing in our religion or society that bans women from driving. Women drove camels during the time of the Prophet [Muhammad] and if he were around today his wives would be driving."

There is also the economic considerations, he says. "Not all Saudi women can afford to hire drivers. And how is the presence of over 1 million foreign drivers who send more than 16 billion riyals [$4.2 billion] overseas annually good for our economy?"

But the opposition to driving often comes from women themselves. A group of some 500 women, including university professors, doctors, journalists, and teachers, sent a petition to King Abdullah in July saying they wanted things to stay the way they were.

"We are seeing that women, and in a very obvious way, are being harassed in malls, in public places, and in front of their schools. So what would happen if, God forbid, women were to drive their own cars?" said the petition.

Not all Saudi women want to drive

Conservative women see driving as a symbol of encroaching Westernization that would lead to losing the privileged status they believe women hold in Islam.

"Women in Saudi Arabia are safer, and better taken care of, and have more status and privilege than women in the West," says writer Lubna al-Tahlawi. Western women are viewed as sex objects, suffer from a high rate of prostitution, and don't even make the same salary as men for the same job, as women here do, she argues. "Driving has not improved their lives."

Fawzia al-Bakri, a professor of education at King Saud University, says driving is important and that's why she took part in the demonstration. "We wanted to highlight the fact that we can't drive, we were willing to do something about it and we were ready to face the consequences, even jail," she says. "But I never imagined that we would be celebrating a 15th-anniversary reunion and still not be able to drive."

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