Every year, nearly four dozen Saudi women get together for a reunion. Eighteen years ago, on Nov. 6, 1990, they staged a public protest against their country's ban on women driving. For half an hour, they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by police.
The women paid heavily for their actions — all the drivers, and their husbands, were barred from foreign travel for a year. Those women who had government jobs were fired. And from hundreds of mosque pulpits, they were denounced by name as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society. Almost two decades later, the ban is still in place, making Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where women cannot drive.
"I think it was worth it, because we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it," says Aisha al Mana, a businesswoman in Al Khobar who took part in the driving protest.
"We went through around a year of harassment because they thought we did something that is not acceptable by society. 'The drivers,' they call us," she says with a laugh.
Two years after their demonstration, the women fired from jobs were reinstated. But Fawzia al Bakr, a professor of education who was one of the 47 protest drivers, says there is still lingering discrimination.
"Wherever you work, you are labeled as a 'driver' and you will never be promoted, no matter how good you are," she says.
The women also have had to contend with critics who say they chose the wrong time to protest, given that their country was on war footing just three months after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. In addition, Saudi Arabia's conservative religious forces were furious about the government's decision to let in thousands of non-Muslim U.S. troops to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein.
Other critics say focusing on driving detracts from more important problems faced by women. And there are plenty of Saudi women who say that lifting the ban would threaten the Saudi family.
Al Bakr says none of these arguments means she should have to forgo her right to drive.
"In every society, you have different opinions," al Bakr says. "I think these women have the freedom not to drive, but then we should have the freedom to drive if we want to. If you drive, it means that you have access to the public, you have access to the institutions. But if you are totally unable to move unless you have a male to actually drive you, then you're completely paralyzed. And that's the essence of it."
Hossa al Sheikh, dean of women at Riyadh's Yamama University and another of the protest drivers, says the ban is a hardship for families who cannot afford a chauffeur.
"I see poor women — they ask 'I want to drive. I can't work because I don't have a driver,' " al Sheikh says.
Progress Under King Abdullah
The drivers agree that under King Abdullah, Saudi women have made progress in terms of expanding educational opportunities and growing access to jobs. But the king, who has said that allowing women to drive is a social, not a religious, issue, has so far not moved to lift the ban. Al Bakr says it may be a matter of priorities for the king.
"At the practical level, King Abdullah is working in a quiet way to support women," al Bakr says. "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 more important issues."
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.
"I think now people are at ease talking about it," al Mana says. "It's not like it was 18 years ago — it was taboo."
For now, those who defied the driving ban 18 years ago get together every November. They put on T-shirts that say "Drivers," and they share a cake with a car on it. They take a group picture — just as they did back in 1990, right after their protest.
"It was so scary at that time, because we were chased by all the religious people," al Bakr says. "But then we decided that this is a very historical moment, so as many of us, we should get together and have a picture and just keep it. And we did, actually. We gathered in one of our friend's house and we took a historical picture, and I'm sure this picture is going to be in some museums somehow."