Women's protest raises issue of Saudi traditions

November 19, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Call her Sara, since it has become too risky for a woman to use her real name. She is a part-time graduate student, holder of a government job and supporter of giving women the right to drive, making her a Saudi radical and a threat to the tranquillity of this profoundly conservative state.

About 40 women, some of them Sara's teachers and friends, discovered the dangers of such a stand this month when they defied Saudi tradition against women's driving by taking the place of their hired drivers and getting behind the wheels of their own cars.

Many of the women were professors or physicians. They were detained by police and, once released, they were suspended from their jobs. Their action has ignited struggles among Islamic religious authorities and between religious authorities and a worried government, and it has embroiled much of the country in a debate about the proper pace of change.

For Sara and other members of Saudi Arabia's small, liberal minority, the female drivers are heroines in a long-running war against a conservative religious establishment.

"They are very brave," Sara said. "This is the first time we women said something."

For religious conservatives, the aspirations of the women represent all that is foreign and potentially disruptive.

"Women driving could lead to social disorder, and any conflict in the country does not help the leadership and the people," a male university professor said. "The social fabric in this country cannot tolerate this."

Saudi Arabia consciously resists becoming like other countries, even other Moslem states, and it has sufficient wealth to do things its way. It continues to practice Islam in its most austere, puritanical form amid carefully chosen creature comforts from the West, as if a medieval religious order were thriving at a luxurious resort.

"We want everything that is good about the 20th century, but we don't want the 20th century," said Prince Mohammed bin Faisal, a Western-educated nephew of King Fahd. "Religion is our reference. If something is for the good of society, it will happen."

What is not allowed to happen are those things proscribed by the Koran, Islam's holy book, or by the teachings of the prophet Mohammed or the interpretations and rulings of religious judges.

No set of proscriptions is more far-reaching than those applied to women, and perhaps nothing initially seems stranger to Western visitors than the tradition that women should not drive. "It's impossible to talk about and understand" for a non-Saudi, Prince Mohammed said. "Even if you're from Egypt, it's hard."

In theory, women are the equal of men, but each gender has a different role to play, and preserving the honor of the family always must come first.

Much of the burden falls on women. To avoid contact with men, women must not appear in public with any men except relatives. They must not work in a setting in which men will be present. They must not travel on their own and thus must not drive, for fear that they could be subject to harassment.

Women must appear in modest dress, again to protect their honor. In practice, it means women wrap themselves head-to-toe in the black cloak called the abaya; in conservative cities such as Riyadh, they also may obscure their faces with a veil.

Probably no other country could afford the consequences of segregating the sexes or carry it to such lengths. Saudi Arabia maintains separate universities for women, including separate medical schools. There are separate banks and, in some cities, separate shopping areas. Every restaurant reserves a separate seating section for women, to shelter them from men.

In the privacy of their homes, women may dress and behave in whatever fashion is acceptable for the household. For the

well-to-do, there also is an escape through foreign travel, part of a sort of schizophrenia in which women get driver's licenses in the United States and Europe but use them only when they are outside their own country.

There is Sara, for example. A woman in her early 30s, she has lived in the West -- and has driven cars there. She is one of five daughters in her father's household, which employs three full-time drivers to chauffeur the women on errands, to classes and to their jobs.

All the rules seemed fixed until the crisis begun by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia responded by inviting U.S. troops. Women in the armed forces came along and began appearing in uniform on city streets.

"They're a great thing," Sara said. "It helps us a lot just looking at them."

Both men and women talk of what they insist was an encounter between a female soldier and the religious police in Jidda, the country's largest and most liberal city. There is no proof that the incident occurred, and the constant retelling has given it the illuminating qualities of myth.

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