Back in the '70s, while Political Officer at the US Embassy in Jidda in Saudi Arabia, I was sent by Ambassador Porter to investigate the Shi'ite presence in Eastern Province. While in Dhahran, I was invited to the home of Bandar bin Sultan, then Commander of a Fighter Wing in the SAAF flying F-5s [F-15s came later]. Amid hours of fascinating revelations during an eight-hour conversation after dinner, some of which had been unknown to even the CIA or State Dept, Prince Bandar described the difficulties facing women's education. The secularizing Royal Family faced strong opposition in even allowing girls to go to special female schools when Prince Fahd, later to become King, was Minister of Education in the late fifties and early sixties. Strict Wahhabi interpretation of the Sharia was against education for women. Bandar said that the opposition to the very idea of female education was so strong that all schoolbuses had their windows blacked out so that buses with girls going to the new female schools would not be stoned by irate religious conservatives. After much political and social turmoil, the idea of women's education gradually gained a foothold.
However, in the seventies, as the Kingdom was rapidly modernizing and many social reforms continued, the religious conservatives made a bargain with the Royal Family. The Ulema would drop objections to many modern innovations and social policies if they were given control over elementary education. Higher education would be under a separate ministry. However, the somewhat dated [end of 2003] article in Le Monde notes, another shift subsequently took place:
The shift occurred toward the end of the 1980s and the early ’90s, notably during the war to liberate Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in 1991. A group of young women dared to take the wheel as a protest for the right to drive. Their audacity provoked the ultraconservatives to close ranks and denounce their behavior as scandalous and sinful. Fingers were pointed at the university for fostering such decadence. The women professors who had participated in the protests were dismissed; the university rector created a Department of Islamic Higher Studies and implemented the total segregation of the sexes. From then on, all male teachers taught their female students remotely, via closed-circuit television screens.
Actually, my understanding was that women had learned via closed-circuit when male professors were teaching since the inception of the female higher education. But that is a quibble and as King Fahd's health became weaker, his support of secular education for women waned as well:
In the absence of any secularizing interference from the government, the religious extremists were free to do as they pleased. One student noted the link between the political and religious powers that be. “When the former weakens, the second grows stronger.” Little by little, dogmatic rigor reached the point of absurdity. Abusive religious interference is the norm, even in the smallest details.
If there is one truism among all the Saudis I have met, it is their contempt and derision for the mutawaa, the universally disliked "religious police" who carry out the Ulema's increasingly onerous and frankly silly religious ukases. These are the moronic nitwits who kept a bunch of female students inside a burning school a while back because they deemed the girls not appropriately garbed to escape the flames in the view of some males who may have been scandalized. Several of the girls perished because of these imbecilic Pecksniffian prigs. This is the sort of religious lunacy prevalent in Iran also, in the Shi'ite version of Wahhabi puritanical hypertrophy.
The Saudi Royal Family now faces a population of young unemployed males due to the burgeoning baby boom in Saudi since the seventies, when a private census counted about seven million native-born Saudis. Now there are over twenty-five million and young men without jobs catch the religious bug easily, as religious universities will grant a degree for simply studying religious dogma and interpretation, with barely any secular skills necessary to graduate. These young men are eager to accomplish something, anything, and sneaking into Iraq or Afghanistan to become a martyr for Islam is better than being an unemployed drone.
So the Taliban in Afghanistan and AQ in training camps somewhere have a steady stream of Saudi males hoping to do something to make life meaningful, even if it means blowing oneself up in an act of "martyrdom" that takes many other lives with you.
So despite the harsh restrictions on Saudi women, they may live longer than their male counterparts.