RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Saudi Arabia's strict conservative interpretation of Islam has kept women hidden, invisible behind black veils and forbidden from moving freely in public. A few have made news recently when they were arrested for flouting the kingdom's ban on women driving. More recently, Saudi women received a boost from the king, who pledged to give them more political power in the coming years. Yet the prince, who's expected to be the next king, is known for his opposition to women's rights.
These mixed messages from the government stir hope as well as fear and frustration among Saudi women, who say they simply want a say in how they live. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to the kingdom and filed this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Finding a public place to interview a group of Saudi women in the capital, Riyadh, is no easy task. They and a reporter are kicked out of a Starbucks because it is prayer time, when shops must close. A nearby hotel lobby also won't work because there are men inside. Saudi women lingering in the same space as men could trigger a visit by the dreaded mutawa, or religious police, who enforce a strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)
NELSON: So the women decide to gather in the reporter's small hotel room. But even that proves a challenge as they search for an elevator with no men inside. Nuha al Suleiman says such obstacles take the fun out of going anywhere.
NUHA AL SULEIMAN: I feel just frustrated when I go out, because I have to find my driver. I will have to stay in some places. I cannot walk in all streets. There are religious police everywhere and they can complain about anything. So I just prefer staying home.
NELSON: The 28-year-old businesswoman and all of the other Saudi women interviewed for this story say they are tired of waiting for rights most other women around the world take for granted. What especially bothers them is the mixed signals they are getting on whether their government will ever give them those rights, like when King Abdullah, in a historic speech in September, pledged to add women to his all-male advisory council and allow them to take part in the next municipal elections. Two days later, a court in the port city of Jeddah sentenced a young mother to 10 lashes for driving a car.
The king later set the sentence aside. Even so, analysts say it was an unusually harsh punishment for violating a female driving ban that isn't enshrined in law. Twenty-one-year-old university student Ruba calls the sentence shameful. Like many here, she believes it was a backlash against the decision to offer women political rights. Ruba, like several women in this story, asks that only her first name be used to protect her family.
RUBA: Of course, it felt like a game of tug of war between the liberals and the conservatives. When the liberals pulled harder and won, the conservatives pulled even harder. So it just felt like women were that rope between the two parties.
NELSON: Nevertheless, Saudi women these days are going after their rights like never before, says Fawzia al-Bakr, a 45-year-old Saudi columnist and college professor who defied the driving ban back in 1990.
FAWZIA AL-BAKR: I mean, I remember when I went to any, you know, gathering or social gathering or the family, everybody look at you as odd, totally odd, because you're asking for something that is against the religion and against the social, you know, code and all that. Now it's so, you know, I could actually talk to my students about things. It's an interesting time.
NELSON: She credits greater educational and work opportunities for their empowerment - that and the Internet, which has made it easier for women to network and draw attention to their efforts.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
MANAL AL-SHARIF: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Like this video Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif posted of herself driving in the city of Khobar back in May. When she was arrested, supporters quickly created a Facebook page for her and demanded she be released. Public pressure and an apology by Sharif, who also signed a pledge that she wouldn't drive again, led authorities to set her set free 10 days later. But the news spurred other Saudi women to get behind the wheel. One is Rasha Alduwisi, a 30-year-old banker who says she's tired of paying a third of her salary to drivers to take her to and from work.
RASHA ALDUWISI: The society is more accepting now. That's for sure. Like, you can see people waving to you and giving you the thumbs up and all that. So I think that tells me that society is ready.
NELSON: But ending the driving ban is not the only change many Saudi women want. Some say more important is for the Saudi government to establish an age of majority for women. Under current Saudi law, a woman is the dependent of a male relative, be he her father, brother, husband or even her son. She always needs that male guardian's permission to do almost anything outside the home throughout her life. She can even be married off without being told, says Sarah, a 23-year-old marketing specialist.
SARAH: When we get rid of that law, I will be able to tell you that Saudi Arabia is headed toward change.
NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.