What about those rebellious Saudi Arabian women? Some 47 of them recently dismissed their drivers and, for about a half-hour, drove their cars by themselves until they were stopped by the police for, it appears, violating tradition -- not religious or secular law. Since then, the Saudi government has straightened out matters. It says driving cars "degrades and harms the sanctity of women." As a result, some of the protesters have been fired from their teaching jobs.
Where are the protests from American women? If they have occurred, this news junkie -- reader of many newspapers and viewer of countless television news shows -- knows nothing about them. They must have been held in the park, around midnight when all good journalists are asleep.
This is really an inexplicable development, or nondevelopment. If the government of South Africa banned blacks from driving cars, it's hard to imagine that a protest would not be held in this country. It's hard to imagine, too, that if Israel had imposed a similar ban on Palestinians, the United Nations would not now be debating yet another resolution -- herewithing and hithertoing Jerusalem to do the right thing.
Gender, of course, is different from race or nationality. But human rights are human rights. What the Saudi women did hardly amounted to treason and was not at the time explicitly against the law. It just was not done -- a cultural taboo, neither legally nor religiously proscribed. Women drive in other Islamic countries. The lone exception is Saudi Arabia, the very nation to which American women in uniform have been dispatched to defend . . . what? One hopes it is not a way of life.
Until recently, much of what was written about Saudi women echoed what was once written about the old South and black Americans. We were assured that Saudi women lacked real ambition, that they were happy with their lot, that they loved the veil, had no interest in most occupations, did not resent the requirement that they have a male escort to travel almost anywhere (even within the country) and truly wanted nothing to do with Western ways.
As recently as the beginning of this month, a merciless information-retrieval system tells me, a news dispatch from Riyadh reported that the arrival of American troops had not made a dent in the Saudi culture. That same day, those 47 women dismissed their drivers and succumbed to the lure of the open road. Apparently, they had learned to drive while living abroad.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative and somewhat xenophobic country. It would be both silly and arrogant for Americans to think that we could change it. After all, women in Saudi Arabia were only accorded the right to an education in the 1960s -- about the same time slavery was abolished. Crimes both petty and grand are punished horribly: beheading, stoning, the loss of a hand. Saudi Arabia bans almost everything: alcohol, pornography and -- lest some Christian fundamentalists get too excited -- Christianity, too.
But the women who hit the road in Riyadh provide evidence that Saudi society is changing. That should come as no surprise. Some 100,000 Kuwaiti women -- Islamic but more Western -- have taken refuge in the country. American troops, including women, are also in the country. Just as surely as vast mobilizations changed America ("How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" went a 1919 song about World War I), so will the current crisis change Saudi Arabia.
In that case, there is nothing wrong with Americans giving the process a nudge -- maybe by nudging our government to nudge the Saudis. After all, the Saudi government cracked down on the women drivers after religious leaders (one of whom is renowned for maintaining that the world is flat) insisted. The demonstrators were reportedly fired on orders from the royal palace. If that's what happened, then what's wrong with some counterpressure?
The Riyadh demonstration and its aftermath were reported in newspapers and not seen on television. Perhaps that explains why there's been little to no reaction in this country. But that hardly means the events did not occur. In the strictest sense, the decision to punish the women drivers is political -- as political as the policies that applied to blacks in South Africa and which were reversed or tempered by worldwide protests. American women could do the same.