On November 6, 1990, some 50 women met in a supermarket parking lot in Riyadh. The women dismissed their drivers and drove their cars in tandem through the streets of Riyadh, defying publicly an unofficial but strictly observed ban on women’s driving. In Saudi Arabia, where women may not travel without permission from their nearest male relative, work where men are present or even enter most government ministries, and where political gatherings for everyone, men and women, are illegal, the driving demonstration was viewed as revolutionary.

The authorities responded as though the demonstration were, in fact, revolutionary. Within days, the Ministry of Interior made official the ban on women’s driving, banned all future political activity by women and, along with the religious leadership (the ‘ulama’), called for deterrent punishment. Women employed as teachers were fired from their jobs, and all of them were humiliated by having their names announced publicly and their demonstration denounced as an act of infidelity against Islam. Some of the women subsequently received harassing phone calls accusing them of sexual immorality and of being agents for Western vices.

The demonstration became a vehicle to inject fresh vigor into the image of ideal womanhood as secluded wife and mother, an image long promoted by the state and the ‘ulama’. A month after the demonstration, for example, a children’s television program contrasted the theme of Islamically correct behavior for believing women with the infidelity of a woman’s wanting to drive a car, and set the lesson to music in a chorus of children’s voices.

The severity of the government’s response was a surprise. Only two months before, King Fahd had called on government agencies to accept women volunteers who wished to work in medical and social services. The king’s edict appears to have been aimed at reducing the country’s dependency on foreign labor at a time in which nearly a million foreigners, mostly Yemenis, were being expelled from the kingdom, and at freeing up Saudi men for military service in anticipation of war with Iraq. Some of the Western-educated Saudi elite, including members of the royal family, had responded to this edict with jubilation, hoping it would initiate a much larger role for women in the work force.

What happened between the women’s volunteer work edict and the driving demonstration? Was the government’s punitive attitude a harbinger of some new wave of fundamentalist concern about preserving the traditional roles of women? Significantly, the official response to the demonstration came from the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of internal security. Both this response and the volunteer work edict were as much about political stability as about women’s rights.

Legitimacy and Conformity

In Saudi Arabia, the ideology undergirding the monarchy defines the legitimate ruler as one who will enforce standards of Islamic conduct upon the individual for the good of the community as a whole. The ruler’s responsibility is to assure that the people know God’s laws and live in conformity with them. Because of the ideological relationship between religion and state, it is crucial that the monarch appear to rule in partnership with the ‘ulama’, and engage them in forming public policy. Even as US forces were on their way to Saudi Arabia, for example, the king asked the Supreme Council of Islamic Research, Ruling, Call and Guidance, headed by Sheikh ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, to certify that there was precedent in Islamic law for inviting foreign forces to defend the kingdom. In response, bin Baz not only sanctioned the invitation but turned a liability into a virtue by praising Fahd for “fulfilling a duty substantiated by shari‘a law which instructs the ruler to seek assistance from those capable of providing it.” [1] King Fahd also sought and received religious approval for his handling of the driving demonstration. The Supreme Council of Islamic Research backed the Interior Ministry’s ruling by issuing a fatwa stating that “women should not be allowed to drive motor vehicles as the shari‘a instructs that things that degrade or harm the dignity of women must be prevented.” [2] Similarly, the king’s edict encouraging women to work was presented with assurances that the duties of participating women would be “within the context of fully preserving Islamic and social values.” [3]

Ever since modernization began in earnest in the early 1970s, tensions have grown over how society wishes to define the standards for these Islamic and social values. The role of women is the arena in which these standards are most passionately debated. The monarchy and the ‘ulama’ have consistently promoted women&’s domesticity and women’s public separation from men as Islamic virtues. Over the past 30 years, with the growth in education, population mobility, and ethnic and religious diversity, women’;s roles have come to replace men’s roles as the outward symbol of the Muslim community living according to God’s laws: no longer can the attendance of men in the mosque be enforced, for example, or usury and smoking forbidden. The monarch’s legitimation, however, is still based on this ability to uphold Islamic principles, and the public separation of women is one which can still be enforced. Encouraging women’s separation as a mandate ordained by divine law, therefore, becomes an instrument of legitimation. In effect, the public invisibility of women has become a visible symbol of the monarch’s piety. The idealized image of female domesticity is compatible with the view of the majority of Saudi citizens. To them, women’s entering the work force means the abandonment of women’s primary task of homemaking and instability for the “Islamic family” and for society as a whole. To smaller but growing numbers of other Saudis, especially Western-educated men and women, working means more income, strengthening of nuclear families and independence from the extended family.

At issue is not the choice of whether to modernize or to remain an Islamic society. The Saudi rulers must maintain a delicate balance between those who want modernization and an Islamic society, and those who want modernization and a particular kind of Islamic society — one parochial in its interpretations of Islamic law, exclusive, and which demands conformity in individual personal behavior.

Promoting Virtue

The 1979 Mecca insurrection against Saudi rule illustrates just how delicate this balance is, and how important the role of women is in maintaining it. The leader of the attempt to seize the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Juhayman ibn Sayf al-‘Utayba, was a former seminary student and protege of bin Baz, Saudi Arabia’s most influential religious scholar. In a series of pamphlets distributed the previous year, Juhayman had called for an end to Western influence in the kingdom, to television, gambling, Western-style universities, conspicuous and extravagant spending, and the presence of all foreigners. He was also opposed to the civil service ‘ulama’ who are called on to interpret Islamic law on behalf of the government.

Juhayman’s insurrection presented no small challenge. It took three days and the lives of 127 Saudi soldiers, as well as help from foreign forces, to extricate him and his followers from the mosque precincts. Juhayman’s movement was effectively ended when he and 62 of his followers were beheaded, but their yearning to set boundaries around Western influence — symbolized most poignantly by the changing roles of women — had struck a sympathetic chord throughout society.

The Saudis’ immediate response was to mollify those sympathies by putting renewed energy into restrictions on foreigners and on women which had begun the year before with the publication of Juhayman’s pamphlets. The Society for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued “Guidelines to our Brothers in Humanity About Proper Dress and Behavior in Saudi Arabia” and similar circulars in all the major cities. [4] Morals police rigorously sought to discipline female secretaries working in offices, unmarried couples eating in restaurants or riding in cars, and “improperly” dressed women. The Interior Ministry issued new rulers instituting sex segregation in recreation areas of foreign housing compounds, and set penalties for foreigners who obtain work permits illegally. [5] Scholarships for Saudi women to study abroad were curtailed, along with commercial licenses for women who failed to prove they had hired a male manager to run their business. The ‘ulama’ issued a fatwa saying that a woman must be physically accompanied by a male guardian in order to travel. [6]

The purpose behind the articulation and zealous enforcement of these rules was to undermine and appease the broad coalition of sentiment that resented Western influence — of which Juhayman and his group represented only the most extreme fringe — and to do so in ways which would not alienate other significant constituencies. By focusing on women’s roles and defining these as Islamic, the monarchy could show that it was prepared to act with vigor to uphold Islamic morality against the West, without actually having to address any of the specific issues Juhayman’s movement put forward.

The Saudi monarchy’s responses to the women’s driving demonstration in 1990, punishing the women and reasserting the idealized version of Muslim womanhood, were similar to those used during the period of the Mosque insurrection. In November 1990 the monarchy was facing a challenge to its legitimacy, just as it had in 1979. King Fahd had invited the Americans to intervene, and people were raising questions about the monarch’s competency, because a great deal of money had been spent on arms with nothing to show for it. There was also a concern, reflected in cassette recordings of sermons sold openly in the markets, that the United States was pressing for a military response to Saddam for its own purposes, which were not compatible with Saudi interests. The voices on the tapes identified themselves by name as imams of local mosques. In general, the speakers condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but they uniformly opposed the US presence in Saudi Arabia. They suspected American motives in amassing such an array of force against Iraq. The only country whose interests could be served by refusing to negotiate with Saddam, they said, was Israel: The United States was using Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait as a pretext to destroy Iraq. They expressed fear that if there were to be a war, regardless of who won militarily, the Arab countries in the Gulf would all be losers.

Other opposition voices came from the Muslim World League, convened in Mecca at the behest of King Fahd. The League condemned Iraq’s invasion, and sanctioned the king’s call for help from “non-Muslim” forces as expected, but also asserted that the presence of foreign troops must be temporary. The League said that “a sign of weakness of the Muslim umma is the ascent of dictators to power,” and called on Muslims to return to the Islamic system of shura (consultation). [7]

Ostensibly, of course, the League’s reference was to Saddam Hussein, but the call for a return to shura suggested a lacking in the Saudi monarchy as well. The following month, as host of the Kuwaiti ruling family and 120,000 Kuwaiti citizens, the Saudi rulers found themselves in the awkward position of allowing a conference on the future of parliamentary rule for Kuwait when no such institutions have even been contemplated in Saudi Arabia. At the conference, exiled Kuwaitis called for the convening of the Kuwaiti parliament which had been dissolved in 1986, and the reinstatement of the 1962 constitution, which contains a bill of rights promising freedom of the press, religious tolerance and freedom from arbitrary invasion of privacy. The proceedings received maximum publicity inside the kingdom. In effect, the debate among the many interest groups who want greater participation in government decision making, which could not have taken place openly in Saudi Arabia, was being carried out by proxy through the Kuwaitis.

King Fahd pledged to review plans for a consultative assembly three weeks later, on November 8. In presenting the plan to the press, he tried to avoid the appearance that current events were pushing him, explaining that the principle of consultation was already in place from the time of his father, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and citing the Qur’anic references to consultation as basic to Islamic government. [8]

Moral Emblems

Meanwhile, all of the expressed concerns about the monarchy’s competence to defend the kingdom and about the push toward war were feeding into another sentiment: the enduring emotional undercurrent that resents Western influences, wants Saudi Arabia to become as close as any developed country can be to embodying the Muslim community living according to God’s laws, and views the role of women as emblematic of the moral values of that community. These sentiments are as useful to opposition voices as they are to the ruling monarchy. A series of clandestine broadcasts equated the royal edict authorizing government agencies to train women volunteers for medical service, where they would surely come in contact with men, with Fahd’s having reneged on the commitment to uphold Islamic morality. In one broadcast, “Holy Mecca Radio” claimed that “the regime of the Betrayer of the Two Holy Mosques [a play on King Fahd’s current title, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”] called on the women and youth of our country to volunteer in the armed forces…. Does Fahd believe that the Hijaz and Najd woman is ready to volunteer in our armed forces to support the soldiers of the invading US Zionist soldier who is occupying our country? Does he believe that our honor is so trivial to us that we will allow our daughters to stand next to Zionists and US soldiers — pork eaters, sinners and AIDS victims?” [9]

All of these opposition voices were nearing a crescendo when the driving demonstration occurred. Its timing could not have been more fortuitous for the monarchy. Here was an opportunity to undo whatever resentment the volunteer work edict may have provoked, and to resurrect its tarnished image as defender of the holy places and Islamic morality. Here was a platform ready-made from which to deflect attention from the serious questions being raised about a consultative council (which had been promised at least twice before in the past ten years and never put into effect), about the lack of any sort of democratic institutions, about the wisdom of following Washington toward war, about the need to call on foreigners for defense, and about the overwhelming presence of Westerners in Saudi Arabia. The driving demonstration was an opportunity to undercut the coalition of diverse opposition voices by appealing to the one issue of common concern — the place of women in their Muslim society. The nature of the government’s response, therefore, was conditioned not by the nature of the women’s infraction but by the incident’s utility for responding to immediate political pressures.

The “new order” in the post-war Gulf is not likely to open Saudi society to the West. Plans for a continuing military alliance with the US, and the May 11 agreement to attend a conference with Israel as the price for future arms sales, can only raise deep concerns among a significant portion of the Saudi population. Saudis will question the purpose of renewed arms purchases from Washington since the military has proven itself unable to use the weapons it already owns effectively:

Are the rulers of Saudi Arabia, some will ask, about to allow the heartland of Islam to be the staging area for America to act as the region’s policeman on behalf of Israel? Are these new arms purchases intended for the defense of the kingdom from external threat or will they be used, as under the Shah, to suppress internal dissent? The monarchy will have a difficult time giving satisfactory answers to these questions, but they can undercut opposition voices by securing continuity for the family and society in everyday life. By vigorously opposing any renewed pressures to liberalize women’s roles, they can make people feel that where it really counts, defending Islamic tradition, the Saudi monarchy is doing its job.

In the absence of open institutions to express political dissent, women will remain a reliable barometer of stability in the kingdom: the first sign that the Saudi rulers are in trouble will continue to be fresh enunciations from the monarchy about the ideal Muslim woman, and a renewal of restrictions on things that women do.


[1] Arab News, August 14, 1990.
[2] Arab News, November 14, 1990.
[3] New York Times, September 5, 1990.
[4] Circular 1039, issued by Saad ibn Mutrafi, director, Hay’at al-Amr bil-Ma‘ruf, Jidda, January 9, 1979; circular 178/6/T/129/1, issued by ‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Dubaykhi, general supervisor, Hay’at al-Amr bil-Ma‘ruf, Eastern Province, September 13, 1982.
[5] Al-Jazira, January 28, 1980.
[6] Al-Da‘wa, November 20, 1980.
[7] Al-Jazira, September 14, 1990.
[8] Arab News, November 9, 1990.
[9] Foreign Broadcast Information Service, September 24, 1990, p. 18.

How to cite this article:

Eleanor Abdella Doumato "Women and the Stability of Saudi Arabia," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This