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Saudi women celebrate huge protest car ride

A group of women gathered around coffee and date cakes to celebrate the afternoon 18 years ago when they got into cars and drove through Riyadh, a defiance of Saudi Arabia's ban on female driving.
Mideast Saudi Arabia Driving Anniversary
A Saudi woman walks in the desert, in Thumama, Saudi Arabia, on Friday, Nov. 7. Saudi women who made headlines when they broke the ban on driving in November 1990 gathered recently to mark the 18th anniversary of the day they got into cars and drove around Riyadh. Hassan Ammar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In an ornate living room, a group of women gathered around coffee and date cakes to celebrate the afternoon 18 years ago when they got into cars and drove the streets of Riyadh, a stunning defiance of Saudi Arabia's ban on female driving.

They have only one regret: The ban remains.

The protest, which made headlines around the world, cost the 47 female drivers and passengers dearly. They were arrested, lost their jobs for 2 1/2 years, were banned from travel for a year and were condemned by the powerful clergy as harlots. To this day, some say they have not been promoted at work because of their protest.

On Wednesday night, however, the living room was alive with laughter as a dozen of the women recalled the joy they felt that day, Nov. 6, 1990, and the giggles that filled their small prison cell as they munched on the Hershey kisses one of them had in her bag.

"We were euphoric," Nora al-Ghanem told The Associated Press in a rare invitation to a journalist to join their annual, private commemoration.

"I loved the double takes the men did when they saw us," said Nora al-Sowayan, re-enacting the wide-eyed looks they received as they drove.

Well-planned protest
The women said the timing of the protest was tied to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the massing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi women saw images of female U.S. soldiers driving around in the desert and heard that Kuwaiti women had driven their children to safety across the border.

The women said the presence of the international media covering the Iraq-Kuwait developments guaranteed their story would reach the whole world and that any government action would be less harsh than if the journalists were not there.

They chose a Tuesday for the protest so they could listen to the gossip about them when they went to work on Wednesday. The names of the women became public the following Friday.

"At my parents' house on Thursday, my aunt was cursing the women who drove," said Nora al-Ghanem, an educator. "That was before the names were released. It was quite funny."

But amid the memories and laughter, there was also the sobering reality that over the past 18 years little progress has been made toward reversing the driving ban — the only such prohibition in the world — and addressing other women's rights issues there.

"We didn't even manage to ride a donkey," snapped one of the women, who did not want her name mentioned for fear of retribution.

Remarkable day
The women have quietly gathered every year at one of their homes to mark the anniversary. At one previous meeting, they ordered a cake shaped like a Volkswagen beetle with women piled inside it. This year, they were congratulated by fans in online chat rooms, but there was no mention of the occasion in Saudi-controlled media.

On that sunny November day in 1990, the 47 women met at a mall parking lot. Fifteen of them — those with international driving licenses — dismissed their drivers and got behind the wheel as the other women piled into the cars.

"My driver was afraid he would lose his job," said Fowziya al-Bikr, an education professor.

They then drove around Riyadh's highways for more than an hour before they were stopped by police accompanying members of the religious police, enforcers of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The women were taken to a prison cell that was so small they had to remain standing. Most were released a few hours later to their male guardians, mainly husbands. The rest were freed the next day.

'Our action has galvanized society'
The reaction, spearheaded by the religious establishment and conservative Saudis, was phenomenal. Clergymen denounced the women's action in Friday sermons as criminal and aimed at corrupting Muslim societies. Leaflets described the drivers as "fallen women" carrying out an American plot. Some of the women even received calls with death threats.

The government list of their names and those of their male guardians was leaked and distributed by zealots in leaflets across the kingdom. One had an added comment: "These are the names of the fallen women and some of the communists and liberals who stand behind them. Do what is necessary."

But there wasn't only denunciation. Some Saudis wrote poems praising the drivers. And, remarkably for a male-dominated society, the women's husbands, fathers and brothers stood by them and not one of them was divorced because of their actions.

Al-Sowayan said that even though women are still unable to drive, "our action has galvanized society."

"I have no regrets," said al-Sowayan, a sociologist. "But today, I would not repeat it. I would instead move to get more personal rights for women."

Commenting on the often-repeated argument that the women's defiant action has made the government more rigid on the issue, al-Bikr said: "On that day, the world woke up and asked, If women can't have this simple right, what other rights don't they have?"

Al-Bikr said not only would she do it again, this time she would bring along her 13-year-old daughter.

"The new generation should have their chance even if it may mean ruining her chance to get a good husband," joked al-Bikr.