RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A conservative backlash against a group of Saudi women who challenged Muslim tradition by driving their cars in public has swept two women's university campuses, prompting the suspension of at least six participating professors whose students labeled them "infidels."
The women were suspended by royal decree from their teaching jobs at the women's section of King Saud University after hundreds of students signed petitions asserting they do not want to be taught by the women. Separate protest demonstrations broke out at the nearby College of Arts, university sources said Sunday.
The turmoil over the women's driving demonstration, in which about 50 women challenged years of Saudi tradition last week by driving their automobiles in a convoy through Riyadh, reflects what some say is a growing sense of social unrest among conservative Saudis.
The unrest has been sparked by Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait and the hundreds of thousands of foreign troops that have flooded into the normally secretive desert kingdom.
"People are very upset about the troops. It's a situation they can't envisage or handle--it's something that's out of control," said one professor familiar with the demonstrations. "They're not allowed to say anything about the troops, and we have a saying in Arabic--it says you take it out on a low wall--and the women are always the easiest targets."
A Saudi official said the protests reflect Saudi Arabia's religious leadership attempting to assert its influence amid the crisis in the Persian Gulf, much as it did after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and later violent incidents at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
"The religious establishment is at it again," he said. "They always do this in times of crisis. They did it in '79. Now we have Saddam Hussein. Now is their chance to reassert themselves.
"In a way, this shows our country is much more conservative than people think it is, and a lot of things simply aren't doable. People are always saying you can't change this culture, and maybe they're right."
In demonstrations Sunday, women students at the College of Arts gathered in the courtyard and temporarily refused to go to class to protest the driving demonstration, according to university sources.
At the women's section of King Saud University on Saturday, some students scrawled the words infidel and depraved woman on the doors of professors who had joined the driving protest.
Students verbally challenged the participating professors, and hundreds signed petitions seeking their removal from teaching, according to sources at the university.
"They accused them of being loose women who are out to shake the foundations of religion and society," said one of the professors at the university's women's section.
"One of them who drove had been really elated by the whole experience. By the end of the day, she was tired and depressed. She said, 'Not a single student in all my classes seemed to understand. Not one of them approved.' "
In their demonstration last Tuesday, about 50 women crowded into 15 cars and drove through the outskirts of Riyadh, violating decades of religious tradition that have prevented women in Saudi Arabia from driving. The women, who had learned to drive outside the country, were stopped and briefly detained by police.
In a country that strictly prohibits any contact between unrelated men and women and does not allow women to go outside without veils, some women do not even ride alone in a car with their drivers but are accompanied by a female servant, as well.
Defenders of the ban against women driving say they are concerned not about driving itself but about what driving might lead to.
For instance, a woman with a flat tire might have to have contact with a man outside her family. Moreover, women drivers might be encouraged to go out of their homes unaccompanied by male relatives. Also, women cannot see to drive if they are wearing the full face veils demanded by conservatives.
The women in the demonstration, mostly married in their late 30s and early 40s and from prominent Saudi families, all were dressed conservatively in full abas (robes) and head scarves.
They insisted that they were not trying to be like Western women but that, with a possible war on the horizon, they needed to be able to take care of their families, if necessary. One woman said her husband was a doctor already posted near the Saudi-Kuwait border, while she was left at home alone with two babies.
Saudi Arabia's religious police demanded that the women be incarcerated for at least a full day. However, a special committee of legal and religious scholars appointed under the sanction of King Fahd concluded, in what many officials regarded as a precedent-setting ruling, that the women violated no civil or religious laws. They were released after signing statements pledging not to repeat the activity.