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“She’s Not a Woman, She’s a Diplomat”—Navigating Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

 Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress
Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress

A car full of armed guards trailed after Janice Bay as she defiantly walked down the gate-lined road away from the car and driver who had refused to take her any further. She had an appointment with the military general in charge of civil aviation, and they were not going to stop her from meeting him. As the first female economic officer in Saudi Arabia, Janice Bay successfully negotiated the business world and disproved those who were skeptical that a woman could do her job. Relying on men for transportation was sometimes tricky, but with persistence, Bay was able to gain access to important and powerful people. 

Other women in Saudi Arabia at the time worked out exceptions to driving rules which allowed them to tackle typically male tasks. The ban on driving during the 1980s was very strict but enforcement was not yet as harsh as it would become later. Bedouin women and expatriates were some of the groups that were able to assert a limited amount of independence. As of June 2018, all Saudi Arabian women were officially given the right to drive through an order issued by the aging King Salman. But he also kept in prison some of the women activists who had pressed for this change.

Janice Bay first entered the Foreign Service in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam war. She was one of an unusually high number of women—eight in total—that were part of the 80th Foreign Service Class. She went on to serve in a variety of interesting locations over the next decade before serving in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1984. Bay continued her career with assignments in Egypt, France, Germany, and Washington, D.C. In 2003 she retired from the Foreign Service. 

Read Janice Bay’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Wendy Erickson.

“I’d go to offices where no women had ever been, and I couldn’t drive myself there because women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.”

“Let’s Give It a Try”: I was the first woman economic officer posted in Saudi Arabia and wasn’t a very popular choice for the job. . . . I said my husband has got a job there, I’ve got a new baby, I want to serve with him. Let me go. They let me go.

I wasn’t the first woman to go there. . . .  But I was the first woman to do economic work, and they said that’s going to be very hard because you can’t sit in the office and do it. You’ve got to go out and see people, and I said let’s give it a try. So, I went to Jeddah and my portfolio there was primarily civil aviation because Jeddah Airport was the main entry point for aviation and also the Islamic Development Bank which was based in Jeddah.

. . . . 

So, it was a great job for me, and I learned that I could actually do that job. It was quite difficult at times because I’d go to offices where no women had ever been, and I couldn’t drive myself there because women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. So, I would be driven by our drivers who were Pakistani drivers or Indian drivers, and they would take me to these places, but if I was challenged at any point along the way, the drivers would often lose their courage.… [H]aving to rely on your driver or your husband at any given moment to take you from Point A to Point B wasn’t the easiest of things to do.

“They were sort of waving their guns and said you can’t do this, you’re a woman.”

An Interesting Meeting: And one particular day that I remember, I was on my way to see the head of Civil Aviation in Saudi Arabia, and he was waiting for me. And the people at the gate said “you can’t come in, you’re a woman.” But I said I have an appointment with your boss, the General, who was in charge of Civil Aviation. They said well, you just can’t come. And so, my driver said you can’t go in, and I said I have an appointment, I have to go in. And so, he said well, I’m not going, and I said well, I’m getting out of the car. 

So I got out of the car and started walking. And I had to walk. It was almost a mile down a long gate-lined road to this large building where this General was waiting for me. So pretty soon these guys started following me in a car with guns. They were sort of waving their guns and said you can’t do this, you’re a woman. You have to stop. And I said I’m not stopping. I have an appointment with the General. 

“We tried to stop her. We didn’t mean to let her in.”

And so, I finally got to the front door, and by this time there was quite a lot of attention being paid to me. And I went in and said I have an appointment with the General. And so, a person called up and said yes, you do. And so, I went up to his office. He apologized, and at that moment these guys with guns came charging in, and they were petrified. They said we’re so sorry. We tried to stop her. We didn’t mean to let her in. And the General said she’s not a woman, she’s a diplomat. She has an appointment with me. Get out of here! 

Just a Woman Doing Her Job: So, from then I could sort of write my own ticket. And the drivers learned, and people would say well, did you feel at any risk there? I said no, because I didn’t think a Saudi man would ever injure a woman, particularly a foreign woman and stranger that he didn’t know. Even though they show a lot of bravado, they weren’t really interested in injuring me. 

“And there were many Bedouin women who drove out in the desertdrove pickup trucks because that was considered part of their work.”

Exceptions to the Rule: Women did have driving licenses in Jeddah in the western provinces of Saudi Arabia up until probably close to 1960. And there was one female doctor, who was maybe Swedish, who was a pediatrician, I believe, in Jeddah and who had a driving license. It was never taken away from her. And she was allowed to spend her whole life driving and going to visitations. 

And there were many Bedouin women who drove out in the desert. Drove pickup trucks because that was considered part of their work. And so, it was quite common and certainly after the early years in Arabia in the early 1930s and 1940s if a woman, an expatriate woman, or any woman needed to get in a car and go somewhere, I don’t think anyone would have stopped her. 


     BA in Political Science,  Fresno State University                                                                              1960–1965
     MA in IR and Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles                                         1965-1966
Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                           1967
     Washington, D.C.—Consular Officer                                                                                                  1967–1968
     Berlin, Germany—Consular Officer                                                                                                    1970–1973
     Tel Aviv, Israel—Consular Officer                                                                                                       1973–1970
     Jeddah, Saudi Arabia—Economic Officer                                                                                          1982–1984
     Cairo, Egypt—Economic Officer                                                                                                           1984–1986
     Washington, D.C.—Office Director for Civil Aviation Negotiations                                              1986–1988
     Paris, France—Economic Minister                                                                                                       1990–1994
     Bonn, Germany—Economic Minister, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission                                       1994–1997
     Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Finance                                 2000–2003
Retirement                                                                                                                                           2003