Saudi Women Find a Way

Human Rights Beyond the Driving Ban

A female Saudi telephone operator works at the International Medical Center in Jeddah, June 4, 2007. More Saudi women are breaking with tradition to take their place in the workplace. Susan Baaghil / Courtesy Reuters

“I changed my baby brother’s Pampers, and now? I’m a 42-year-old mother, and I need him to sign off when I travel abroad?” My divorced Saudi friend and I were sharing tea in Riyadh’s Al Faisaliah Hotel, and she could not hide her disgust. A striking beauty of regal bearing, she has a high-powered international job and limited patience for her culture’s suffocating “protections” for women.

Yet even this worldly skeptic could see signs of progress for the kingdom’s women. “It’s changing,” she insisted. “We are in a correctional phase.” On a recent trip to Riyadh and Jeddah, that is an opinion I encountered time and again from Saudis and westerners alike. “The country is on a trajectory of modernization, if not too fast,” recently departed U.S. Ambassador James Smith told me. Together with his wife, Janet, a former professor at the National War College, Smith has spent nearly five years steeped in kingdom culture. “There is an imbalance politically that ever so slightly favors the modernizers” and, he continued, “an emerging critical mass of daughters -- on campuses and in jobs -- who will make a difference.” 

You are not likely to hear this view in the United States or Europe. Saudi Arabia remains the only country on earth to prevent women from driving, an activity that westerners in particular equate with deeply held notions of freedom, mobility, and independence. They pity the woman who cannot drive herself to the mall, to the doctor’s office, even to her own job -- who must instead don a burqa in the backseat. The very fact that women who drive the country’s roads are considered protesters makes Saudi Arabia seem stuck in a distant century. 

The reality, however, is more complex than what most westerners believe. Saudi women have made dramatic progress in just the past five years. More women than ever before are graduating from college, pursuing careers, and speaking freely, especially on

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