Saudi Women Still Paying for Taking a Spin


Almost five months after their bold crime, the women who dared to drive are still jobless and trapped in a country where they have suffered scorn and ridicule.

By driving a convoy of cars through the streets of Riyadh on Nov. 6, at a time when a world on the brink of war focused attention on Saudi Arabia, 49 Saudi women violated longstanding Islamic tradition to press demands for a limited agenda of equal rights and opportunity. It was an unprecedented challenge to authority that shattered the Saudi veneer of tranquil stability and rocked the nation to its core.

The women were quickly arrested. Many lost their jobs or scholarships to study abroad. They were prohibited from leaving the country, and, in some cases, the ban applied to their husbands, as well.


In the weeks that followed, they were denounced by religious leaders and their names and phone numbers were printed in widely circulated pamphlets that labeled them “fallen women” and communists. Their children were ridiculed in school. At the King Khaled mosque, one imam called for them to be beheaded.

“There is no name for what they have done to us,” one of the women who participated said in an interview.

Today, bitter and disillusioned, the women feel they are still being punished. In a rare interview, two of the women agreed to talk to The Times on the condition that their real names and some identifying details be omitted. They say they fear further retribution.

The government of King Fahd contends that the illicit drivers violated the “sound Islamic attitude” that forms the basis for the Saudi way of life. Cracking down on the women was seen largely as a concession to outraged religious conservatives; by placating the powerful religious fundamentalists on the issue of the women, Fahd hoped to quiet them on the also controversial and more urgently crucial point of allowing foreign troops on Saudi sand.

Even among liberal intellectuals sympathetic to the women’s cause, some felt the “drive-in” was wrong because it provoked a public confrontation at an inappropriate moment--a moment when the country faced war. Change in Saudi Arabia, some argued, must be gradual and slow.

Some Saudi observers believe the women will be forgiven and their status restored, in time. The two interviewed for this article, who will be called Mona and Layla, were not so sure.

“We sit tight and just wait and see,” Mona said. “We are prisoners . . . in a different kind of jail.”

Most of the women, though not all, are educated and have spent considerable time in the United States or Europe. There, they learned not only to drive but to function with some independence and self-reliance, traits not generally part of a Saudi woman’s public role.

Many are from prominent Saudi families, have taught in the women’s section of King Saud University and are married with children.

Mona, 33, holds a doctorate in education, which she earned in Oregon. She is the mother of several children. Layla was studying for a doctorate in a medical field in London and had only come to Saudi Arabia for a visit a short time before the drive-in, intending to return to school. Now, she said, she is trapped and cannot get back to her studies in England.

Both arrived at the interview in long black abayas , the cloak women are required wear under Islamic tradition. They removed their abayas once entering a home for their interviews. They were brought in chauffeur-driven cars, the mode of transport for the average Saudi.

“I learned to have freedom” in the United States, Mona said, sipping cardamom-spiced coffee and smoking a cigarette. “I had to stand on my feet. Suddenly, (I’m) back home and I can’t do anything without my husband. . . . When I get really depressed I ask, ‘Why did I go to the States to begin with, why did I bother? Why didn’t I just stay here and be like most Saudi women?’ ”

The women said they decided to press the issue of driving rights because they feared that, if war came to Saudi Arabia, their chauffeurs, natives of countries like the Philippines, India and Bangladesh, might flee.

“Driving is important,” Layla said. “We meant it to represent our position in society, to show our resentment toward our position in society. . . .

“Even Qatar has a better position” on women, she added. “We are like Jews among Arabs.”

The issue, of course, went beyond driving. Taking a steering wheel in a car was only a symbol. Few women in Saudi Arabia really care about driving, but many, especially among the Western-educated liberals, do desire greater opportunities in a country that restricts the jobs women may hold and segregates the sexes.

“If I have to be driven, it shows I am not a responsible person,” Mona said. “If I can put a car beside another guy’s car who doesn’t think of women as people, it will make him change his mind about me. . . .

“I just want some rights,” she said. “We need things to change. I have simple demands.”

The drive-in, said one Western diplomat, was “the Saudi equivalent of sitting at a lunch counter in Birmingham.”

The event did not occur totally spontaneously. After three planning meetings, the drive-in was timed to capture the attention of scores of reporters from the international press, in Saudi Arabia to cover the Gulf War. When word spread among the network of women that D-day had arrived, someone contacted the journalists.

The women gathered at a central meeting place, then boarded their cars. A woman sat behind the steering wheel of each car, with others seated as passengers. Two caravans, a total of 15 cars, peeled off into the traffic of the Saudi capital.

Careful not to offend too many social mores on one day, the women were clothed in their traditional black abayas and veils.

Mona recalls stopping at an intersection during the drive. A male driver in the next car over cast a glance and quickly did a double take. Then, Mona recalled with a smile, he flashed a thumbs-up sign to the car full of women.

“He thought we were courageous,” she said.

Such small victories would be short-lived.

The Riyadh police soon caught up with the women and pulled the caravan to the side of the road. An officer went from car to car asking the women where they were from. He apparently had expected to find Kuwaitis. In Kuwait, women are permitted to drive, and there had been numerous incidents of female Kuwaiti refugees found driving on Saudi roads.

A stunned police officer radioed the awful truth back to headquarters: “They’re all Saudis!”

Within minutes, the matawah , or religious police, arrived. They ordered the women hauled off to the police station.

Cramped in a small cell with barely room to sit, the women were held for 12 hours while police called their husbands and fathers. In Saudi Arabia, women are the responsibility of a male guardian--a father or husband--who is held accountable for their actions.

Some of the women were interrogated. When was the first time you thought about driving? When did you decide to drive in a public place? When did you learn to drive?

And the most persistent question: Who put you up to this?

“They couldn’t believe that women had thought of it,” Mona said. “They kept asking, insisting, ‘Who was the man behind it?’ ”

The women were eventually released to the custody of their male guardians after signing statements promising never to do what they had done again.

That was only the beginning.

The women underestimated the response their action would generate. They did not anticipate the scathing attacks that followed the drive-in and were especially dismayed when other women turned against them.

“We thought we would have more support,” Layla said quietly.

The demonstration came at a time when U.S. service women were seen driving military vehicles in Saudi Arabia and Western female journalists were seen walking about with their heads exposed. There was an air of new openness, as the government-controlled Saudi press suddenly became more lively and officials started to speak again of democratic reform.

“The atmosphere made them think it would be acceptable,” said a leading Saudi political scientist. “They miscalculated.”

To many in Saudi Arabia, the women had gone too far. Hundreds of female university students signed petitions saying they did not want to be taught by women who had participated in the protest. Six professors were suspended from their jobs by royal decree.

The country’s highest religious authority, Sheik Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz, ruled on the “inadmissibility” of women driving cars, extolling “the necessity of meting out deterrent and appropriate punishment to whoever commits this act again.”

In a country where the Koran is the constitution, the ruling royalty had little choice but to condemn the women. Moreover, King Fahd found himself in a position of compromise with the religious right: By agreeing on punishment for the women, he could exact a pledge from the country’s imams to permit the deployment of half a million American troops in the Saudi desert.

“Their timing was bad,” said one prominent businessman familiar with the thinking of the royal family. “The government was busy with the war effort . . . (and the women) gave the religious fanatics something to exploit.”

But, the businessman added, “This is not a police state. . . . There is no vindictiveness, (and) the leadership is very forgiving.”

Indeed, some of the women reportedly have met with the king to plead their case, a move that has sent encouraging signs to some.

But for Mona and Layla, the ordeal will stay with them.

“We expected to be jailed for a few days, (but) this was crazy,” Mona said. “I wish they had put us in jail some days and let us out. That would be better than what we have.”

As for the argument that their timing was wrong, Mona remains skeptical.

“I don’t know,” she said, “if there will ever be a right time.”