Making History: TIME Sits with a Woman Behind the Wheel in Saudi Arabia

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Maha al Qatani settles herself in the driver’s seat, adjusts her headscarf, and with a quick prayer turns the key in the ignition. “I’m not nervous,” she says, even if the uneven tenor of her voice betrays tension. “When we lived in the U.S. I always drove my kids to school.” But this is Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

In taking to the traffic roiling along one of Riyadh’s main thoroughfares, al Qatani is defying a longstanding prohibition against women drivers, one that just recently landed another woman driver, Manal al Sharif, in detention for nine days. The issue of women driving occupies a gray area in Saudi Arabia. It’s not banned by any formal law, and in some desert communities women do drive unmolested. But in the major cities it has been long prohibited by religious rulings backed by an official order from the Interior Ministry. Last month al Sharif took that ruling head on by posting a video of herself driving on YouTube, and calling for a nationwide protest drive on the 17th of June. It was a bold move that earned the ire of the authorities. She was charged with disturbing the peace and inciting protests. Since then several other women have posted videos and photos of themselves driving online, and spread the message via Twitter.

In one of the most peculiar revolts to have been inspired by the Arab uprisings, al Qatani and dozens of women like her have taken to the streets. They are leaving their drivers at home, and taking their positions behind the wheel. They are driving to the grocery store, to the doctor, or to pick their kids up from school. Those thankless errands may plague women round the world, but for some women in Saudi Arabia they are a long dreamed of privilege. One by one, with no fanfare and no banners, they are claiming their rights with a simple spin of the steering wheel.

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Al Qatani signals right and turns into a narrow alley in front of several men who stare into the window of the SUV, mouths agape. She is faced head on by a car coming in the opposite direction. “Yallah,” she exclaims. “Doesn’t he have any sense? I am a woman!” Her husband, Mohammad al Qatani, chuckles from the passenger seat, delighting in the shocked expression of the facing driver.

When al Sharif first went on YouTube with her campaign, it ignited a nationwide debate over whether driving for women was a privilege, or a necessity. Several women declared their intention to make their opinions known on the 17th, but al Sharif’s detention and subsequent public shaming deterred many would-be drivers, who feared that the cost of taking a stand would be too high. Not al Qatani. “If no one sacrifices, no one will get their rights,” she says.

And al Qatani is prepared to face the worst. Next to her is a Coach bag stuffed with the essentials for a potential prison stay – deodorant, comfortable clothes, a hairbrush and a prayer mat. Earlier, I had asked her if she was afraid of getting picked up. “I really don’t care,” she said. “It’s my right. I didn’t do any crime, I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t sell drugs. Those people need to be in jail. Not me for doing my rights. If they do this, it’s a big mistake.”

We pull onto the highway crammed with traffic. Few drivers notice the woman in the black veil driving alongside them. A few children point and smile, but al Qatani is more concerned about the gridlock than potential witnesses. “I hate traffic,” she groans. “Even if I had permission to drive, I will still make Mohammad drive.” Mohammad al Qatani, a seasoned activist and passionate supporter of women’s rights, chuckles. “This is about having a choice,” he says.

The levity is interrupted by the bark of a police horn. We pull over. The cop walks up to the drivers side, and, flummoxed by the sight of a woman in a full-face veil at the wheel, scurries over to the passenger side to confer with Mohammad al Qatani. Mohammad steps out of the car with the cop, and is escorted to the waiting cruiser. Maha al Qatani films the scene with her iPhone, fearful that he will be taken away. Then she calls a friend to check in on her three kids, waiting at home. By this time we are surrounded by six police cruisers. Another cop leans into the passenger side window to bark at Maha al Qatani. “Does your husband know how to drive?” he asks. Al Qatani replies yes. “Then why was he in the passenger seat?”

Maha raises her normally quiet voice in defiance. “I am taking my rights. I am driving. Why do I have to rely on Indians and Pakistanis to drive me around?” she shoots back, referring to the common Saudi practice of hiring immigrant drivers.

The officer looks stricken. “I don’t know what to do,” he says plaintively. He has never been faced with a female driver before. “If I raise it up [the issue of her driving] it is wrong. If I let you go it is wrong.” Maha al Qatani just stares him down.

Driving, says al Qatani, is not a woman’s right but a human right. Driving, she says, “is just the first step.” One she hopes will bring more rights not just to women, but to men too. After a tense half hour, Mohammad al Qatani returns with the cop at his side. Maha shifts to the passenger seat, and Mohammad takes the wheel. He silently hands her a yellow sheet of paper. Maha al Qatani stares at it for a moment, her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she breaks into peals of laughter. Raising her fists in a victory salute, she shouts, “It’s a ticket. Write this down. I am the first Saudi woman to get a traffic ticket.”

For anyone else a traffic violation would be a headache. For Maha al Qatani, and Saudi Arabia’s women, it is making history.

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