JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 13 -- Declaring that women drivers contradict Islamic tradition, the Saudi government tonight threatened those who violate the country's ban on their driving with unspecified "deterrent punishment."
A warning issued by the Interior Ministry reaffirmed the ban and said that the driving of a car by a woman "contradicts the Islamic traditions followed by Saudi citizens" since Islamic law "instructs that things that degrade or harm the dignity of women must be prevented."
The move is the latest step in a conservative backlash that has followed a protest last week by 49 Saudi women who defied Saudi custom and drove cars in a procession in Riyadh, the capital.
Six of the women have been suspended from their teaching jobs at Riyadh's King Saud University, sources said, after conservative students criticized them harshly.
Saudi women, who are not allowed to travel without permission of a male relative, must be chauffeured everywhere. Although there is no law against female drivers, women are not issued driving licenses. Many Saudi women who have lived overseas have foreign licenses, and many even own cars, which they keep abroad.
The ministry said the prohibition is based on a religious finding, or fatwa, issued by prominent Saudi Islamic scholars.
Women are not barred from driving in other Islamic countries.
Although foreign women also are barred from driving in Saudi Arabia, U.S. female soldiers here have been allowed to drive military vehicles when on duty and in uniform. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said that arrangement is unlikely to be changed.