The protest over Saudi Arabia's ban against female drivers has arrived by limousine in Minnesota.

Three Rochester women who were hired in 2010 to drive Prince Abdul-Rahman bin Abdul-Aziz and his entourage say they were let go after the prince told the U.S.-based companies that hired them that he wanted only male chauffeurs.

The women, Gretchen Cooper, 36, Barbara Herold, 65, and Lisa Boutelle, 50, filed a federal lawsuit last week in Minneapolis alleging sex discrimination by the prince. The suit also names as defendants Mohamed Ali Elbashir who does business in Rochester as Crown Prince Limousine, Premier Crescent Services of Rochester and Highland International Transportation Services Inc. of New York. The latter two firms allegedly hired drivers for the prince.

Cooper said the three filed suit because they believe their civil rights were violated but they also want to spread the word about the driving restrictions in Saudi Arabia.

"We are standing in solidarity with these women," she said Friday.

According to the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.

While there's no law against women driving in Saudi Arabia, a 1991 fatwa, or religious ruling by a grand mufti, said that allowing women to drive could "lead to many evils and negative consequences."

A profitable job

The Rochester women were among at least 40 drivers hired in October 2010 to escort Prince Abdul-Rahman and a large group of his family and friends while the prince was in town seeking medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic, their suit says.

Cooper had worked as a driver for Princess Nura bint Abdallah bin Muhammad Al Saud al-Kabir during a six-week trip in 2008. She said she was the only female driver out of about 25 chauffeurs that time.

"That first group, they really did take me in. They were so kind to me," Cooper said.

She recalled the princess saying that women weren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but even if they were, she had no interest in driving herself.

Women told it's not personal

Cooper was pregnant while she drove for the princess and said she earned enough money from the six-week assignment to take nearly a year off after her child was born. So she was excited when she and the other women drivers got hired and picked up Prince Abdul-Rahman and his group at the airport two years later for what was to be a month-long job.

But when she arrived at the Kahler Hotel the next morning to resume driving, the suit says, Cooper was told by defendant Elbashir to clear her things out of the limo. Nabil Hanna, a representative of defendant Premier Crescent Services, told her that she was being let go because the prince's entourage didn't want any female drivers, the suit says. It alleges that Hanna told Boutelle and Herold the same thing.

"They said their hands were tied, and not to take it personally," Cooper recalled.

Since 2010, other visitors have arrived in Rochester from Saudi Arabia but no women have been hired as the drivers, according to the suit filed by attorneys Lisa Stratton and Jill Gaulding of the nonprofit Gender Justice group in St. Paul.

Stratton and Gaulding say they filed sex discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as is required, and received notice in June that they could proceed with the lawsuit. They say they don't believe Prince Abdul-Rahman can claim diplomatic immunity but acknowledge that it may be difficult to serve him.

None of the defendants in the suit could be reached for comment. The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond.

Customer preference not valid

Should the prince argue that his religious beliefs prompted his decision, Gaulding said it's well established in the United States that equal protection in the workplace generally trumps those concerns.

"The right to equal opportunity in the workplace is the foremost right," she said.

Arguments of customer preference won't protect the employers either, Gaulding said.

"In the bad old days, customers could literally express the preference to not have an African-American or black person serving them. And you can roll that forward to these days and have a customer say, 'I don't want a woman driving me,' " she said. "The law is very, very clear in the United States. That's not a valid basis for discrimination."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493