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Driving while female in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh may be the Bible Belt of the Arab world, but some of the architecture looks very Star Wars.

There is a sleek new skyscraper in the Saudi capital designed with a big hole in the upper stories.

"There's a bad joke," said a Saudi architect, "that we use that building to train terrorist hijackers."

Terrorism experts have been speculating that Osama's new tape is aimed at inflaming disgruntled young men in Saudi Arabia _ where everyone I met bitterly complained that America is warring against Islam and shafting the Palestinians.

It's fertile ground. Saudi Arabia is the Augusta National of Islam, a sand trap where men can hang out and be men. A suffocating, strict, monochromatic world of white-robed men and black-robed women.

After the oil boom of the late '70s, orthodox Islamic clerics got so furious at the louche behavior of the royals _ jetting off to Europe, buying bigger houses and cars, and spending less time on family _ that they went "into overdrive," as one Saudi official put it.

"That's when we should have put them into a box," he sighed.

Instead, the royals tried to throw the fundamentalists sops _ blocking little things like cultural freedom and women's rights.

The moment when America should have tried to use its influence to help Saudi women came on Nov. 6, 1990, as U.S. forces gathered in the kingdom to go to war in Iraq. Inspired by the U.S. troops _ including female soldiers _ 47 women from the intelligentsia went for a joy ride to protest Saudi Arabia's being the only place where women can't drive.

"We were very, very careful to plan it correctly not to be too antagonistic to the culture," recalled one of "the drivers," as they are still known. "We were mothers, well covered, nothing anti-Islam."

Using international licenses, the women took the wheels from their brothers and husbands and drove in a convoy until police stopped them.

At first, the drivers were exhilarated. But then the clerics pounced, blaming "secular Americanist" ideas and branding the women "whores" and "harlots." They were publicly harassed, received death threats and lost their jobs. "People would make threatening calls to our homes saying "you bitches,' " recalled one woman. "They put out fliers all over the country saying horrible things about us." Their husbands' jobs were jeopardized; their passports were revoked; they had to sign papers agreeing not to talk about the drive.

Prince Naif, the interior minister, placated the clerics, saying the women had committed "a stupid act." Driving by women, banned by custom, was made illegal as degrading to "the sanctity of women."

America was silent: Whether they drove was less important than how much it cost us to drive.

"The aftermath was much worse than we thought it would be, even now there is some backlash," said one of the women, whose 22-year-old daughter even calls it a mistake.

After 12 years, on the cusp of another Gulf War, came a sign that the women's ostracism was finally ending. When I was in Riyadh recently, there was a party for the opening of a museum exhibition of photographs by one of the drivers, Madeha Alajroush, who lost her job at a photography studio after the protest. The host was Princess Adelah, the daughter of Crown Prince Abdullah, and it was attended by Abdullah's favorite wife, Hissah, and another daughter, Sita.

Several of the drivers were there, admiring the subversive photos of faceless women, including one of a woman's ghostly outline on a couch.

They did not believe the royal presence signaled that the driving ban might soon end. "People never will be ready," said one. Agreed another: "I never thought the day would come when my daughter would not be able to drive. It seems such a simple, necessary part of life."

Now they are more angry at the United States than their own rulers. They feel the American media are playing up the repression of Saudi women post-9/11 as a way to demonize Saudi Arabia, just as George and Laura Bush played up the repression of Afghan women post-9/11 as a way to demonize the Taliban.

"Americans are always saying they're concerned with freedom and the democratic will of people," said one of the drivers, a professor. "But they didn't care about what was happening inside our country in 1990. And they still don't care. We are seen only as the ladies in black."

+ Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service