RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We just heard from the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, a country that often cites Islam and cultural traditions as reasons for many restrictions placed on women. It was 18 years ago that dozens of Saudi women challenged the country's ban on driving by women. They drove around the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by police, and they paid heavily for it. Those who had government jobs were fired, and from hundreds of mosque pulpits they were denounced by name. Every year, the women mark the anniversary, even though the driving ban is still in place. Caryle Murphy has the story.
CARYLE MURPHY: Aisha al Mana took part in the driving protest 18 years ago last month. She's a businesswoman in the eastern city of Al Khobar.
AISHA AL MANA: I think it was worth it because we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it.
MURPHY: But Fawzia al Bakr, a professor of education, says there's still lingering discrimination against the 47 women who came to be known as "the drivers."
FAWZIA AL BAKR: Wherever you work, you are labeled as a driver, and you will never be promoted within your work, no matter how good you are.
MURPHY: The women have been criticized, not just for taking a stand, but for the timing of their protest. It was 1990, just three months after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. Conservative religious forces already were furious about the government's decision to let in thousands of non-Muslim U.S. troops as protection against Iraqi aggression. And there are plenty of Saudi women who say that lifting the ban would threaten the integrity of the Saudi family. But Fawzia Al Bakr says none of these arguments mean that she should have to forego her right to drive.
AL BAKR: I mean, if you drive, it means that you have an access to the public. You have access to the institutions. But that if you are totally unable to move unless you have a male to actually drive you through, then you're completely paralyzed, and that's the essence of it.
MURPHY: Saudi Arabia has a large middle class, but not all of them can afford a driver. Hossa al Sheikh, dean of women at Riyadh's Yamama University, is another of the protest drivers. She said the ban on women driving is an economic hardship for many families.
HOSSA AL SHEIKH: I see poor womans. They ask, I want to drive. I can't work because I didn't have a driver.
MURPHY: The drivers agree that King Abdullah has expanded educational and professional opportunities for women, but his refusal to lift the ban on driving might be a matter of priorities, says Fawsia Al Bakr.
AL BAKR: At the practical level, King Abdullah is working in a quiet way to support women, but when it comes, unfortunately, to the driving, it's just too much headache. And that's why I think King Abdullah doesn't want it because he has maybe more important issues.
MURPHY: Yet opposition to women driving seems to be fraying. A Gallup poll last year found that 55 percent of Saudi men now want to let women drive. A handful of women caught driving this year were only briefly detained, according to press reports, and a university student was called a heroine after she drove her badly burned father to the hospital. For now, those who took a stand 18 years ago gather annually wearing T-shirts that say "Drivers." They share a cake with a car on it. And they take a group picture, just as they did back in 1990, right after their protest, according to Fawzia al Bakr.
AL BAKR: And it was so scary at that time because we were, you know, chased by all the religious people. But then we decided that, you know, this is a very historical moment. So we said, as many as of us we should get together and have a picture and just keep it, and we did.
MURPHY: Fawzia believes the historic picture will someday hang in a Saudi museum, a museum she hopes Saudi women will drive to themselves to visit. For NPR News, I'm Caryle Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.