Stirrings in Riyadh

November 23, 1990

If women are allowed to drive automobiles, what won't they demand to do next?

The civil disobedience of some 70 Saudi women driving their own cars in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, was not inspired by the women soldiers of the United States driving huge trucks across the sand. Nor even by the Kuwaiti women refugees who are accustomed to drive.

No, these reluctant rebels, possessed of foreign driving experience, were motivated by the concern that their foreign male chauffeurs might be called to military service or driven from the country, leaving themselves and their children housebound. These Saudi women demonstrated for preparedness.

War and the threat of war can do that. The American Civil War expanded women's professional horizons in the United States, certainly in the fields of nursing and teaching. World War I and World War II saw professional doors open to women in Allied countries that were never quite closed afterward. Even the mere threat of war can bring permanent social change to a country.

The most liberated women of the Arab world, excluding those of Lebanon before its destruction, are probably in Iraq. They hold jobs restricted to men in neighboring countries, and wear makeup unveiled in public. They come closest to living the lives of women in Europe and North America, which is strange for a country ruled by a dictator who has suddenly posed as defender of Islamic tradition.

What they may not do is think their own thoughts, any more than their menfolk may.

It is premature to say whether Saudi Arabia has moved into permanent crisis that would put irresistible pressures on hallowed tradition and give Saudi women the necessity and then the right to do the things that Iraqi women may do.

But certainly the aggression of Saddam Hussein of Iraq has had unintended consequences throughout the Arabian peninsula. If this goes on much longer, Saudi women may even gain the right to fly.

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