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Saudi women recall a day of driving

Women who protested in 1990 reunite as debate over women drivers returns.

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Inside a rented hall on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, women slip on T-shirts over their silk and cotton blouses. "Yes to the empowerment of women," it reads. Nov. 6, 1990, is printed in red under tire tracks.

About 20 women have gathered privately here for their annual reunion to mark their defiance 15 years ago of this conservative kingdom's ban on female drivers.

Spurred by the Gulf War and the sight of female American GIs driving in Saudi Arabia, the group took to the road. They traveled the streets of Riyadh before being surrounded by curious onlookers and stopped by traffic cops, who took them into custody. They were released only after their male guardians signed statements that they would not drive again.

The women, many of whom are professors, had been prepared for a reprimand from the government, even some jail time. But it was the reaction of their students, their extended families, and many acquaintances that surprised them.

After the protest, thousands of leaflets with their names and their husbands' names - with "whores" and "pimps" scrawled next to them - circulated around the city. They were suspended from jobs, had passports confiscated, and were told not to speak to the press. Overnight, they became pariahs.

About a year after the protest, they returned to work and received their passports. But they were kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions.

But now, due to the courage of one member of Saudi Arabia's consultative Shura Council, a new reform-minded king, and a society forced into open debate following violence linked to Muslim extremists, the subject is once again taking center stage.

And the women have decided to break their silence.

'Driving is just a symbol'

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