Wheels of Change



Thirty-nine-year-old Maha al-Qahtani stepped out of her bedroom of her family's apartment about 9:30 a.m. Friday. Her lipstick was on, her hair swept back. A folded prayer rug and packed overnight bag were tucked under her arms, in case Maha -- a Saudi wife, mother and IT specialist -- was about to begin an extended stint in jail.

Maha turned to her husband Mohammed al-Qahtani, waiting for her in the living room.

"Yalla," she said. "Let's go."

With that -- and a nervous burst of laughter between the couple a few minutes later when her husband handed her the car keys -- Maha moved to the vanguard in what is currently the hottest political issue in Saudi Arabia, where lavish public-welfare programs have helped tame the unrest roiling much of the Arab world.

Saudi activists, encouraged by the Arab Spring and by the outlets for expression offered through Facebook and Twitter, declared Friday a day for Saudi women to take to the streets, behind steering wheels.

Saudi Arabia remains perhaps the only country in the world where women are banned from driving -- even though no law explicitly bars Saudi women from driving. Saudi leaders from King Abdullah on down have said they believe Saudi women should be allowed to drive.

Inside and outside Saudi Arabia, some tend to see the ban as a frivolous issue -- the stereotype being a Saudi woman princess in sunglasses wanting a little independence as she drives to Starbucks for a latte.

Activists and writers like Eman Fahad al Nafjan, a blogger, doctoral student, and mother in Riyadh, call the impact of the ban profound, saying that it limits women's mobility into female employment and education, despite efforts by King Abdullah to boost both. And in a kingdom that the International Labor Organization says is the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council with a significant poverty rate, the ban is a drain on the resources of women, forcing many households to pay thousands of dollars a year for drivers, opponents say.

Saudi's religious fundamentalists are dead opposed to lifting the ban. Their support for the monarchy is typically seen as essential to the kingdom's stability.

"In Egypt the issue is the constitution, civil rights, democracy" -- matters that challenged the very existence of the Egyptian government, Nafjan, the blogger, said over coffee on the eve of the protest.

Here, "our issue is no threat to the government -- whether women drive or not," Nafjan said. With the biggest controversy in the kingdom being such a mild one, "the Saudi strategy is to prolong it" rather than clear it out of the way, Nafjan argued, lest a potentially more existential threat to Saudi's monarchy move forward as the next hot issue.

Calls for and against Friday's driving protest were the greatest since 1990, when groups of Saudi women publicly took the wheel of their cars amid the regional upheaval of the Gulf War. Saudi authorities retaliated by trying to block those women from jobs and patronage, and isolate them and their families.

This time, organizers on the women2drive Facebook page urged women to minimize the challenge to the power structure. Women should drive singly rather than in groups, and post a Saudi flag or a picture of the king in their windshield to show their loyalty to the state, organizers of the protest directed. Only women with international licenses should get behind the wheel.

Despite the precautions, religious conservatives unloaded on would-be women drivers in the days leading up to Friday's protest.

The women drivers were "female terrorists" and their vehicles "bombs," one newspaper wrote. A counter-protest site on Facebook urged Saudi men to lash any women who drove (it has since been removed).

The government clamped down as well. Last month, authorities in Khobar city jailed Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi woman who drove and then posted the video evidence on YouTube. Police briefly detained another group of women who took a test spin last week through a back district of Riyadh.

Word went out among women, supposedly from authorities, that the government might tolerate women driving even this Thursday or Saturday, but would crack down hard this Friday, Nafjan said. (Lacking an international driver's license, she was looking for a female driver with whom she could ride shotgun.)

On Thursday night, a female commentator on TV joked that Saudi protesters should let their husbands know before they headed out on errands: "I'm going to the store -- see you in 10 days."

Maha waivered throughout the week. A woman friend had taught her how to drive when the family lived for a time in Bloomington, Indiana. Like many Saudi women, Maha had already driven from time to time in less populated areas of Saudi Arabia.

Maha's husband, Mohammed, an outspoken human-rights activist, actively encouraged her.

So did their 13-year-old daughter. The girl had just learned, via teasing from her brothers, that she, unlike them, was not considered a prospective candidate for a driver's license in Saudi Arabia.

Shocked at the news, the girl immediately began lobbying for a move back to the United States, Mohammed said. "What are we doing here? Let's go!" she urged her father.

In recent days, Maha said, the outpouring of tweets supporting Saudi women drivers had heartened her daughter. The 13-year-old showed the tweets to her family.

"She told her brothers, 'See! We can drive!"' Maha said.

Friday morning, Maha tried to wake her children to say goodbye, not knowing if she would be be gone for a half-hour or a week. Sleeping hard on a weekend, the children failed to rouse.

When she stepped into the living room, Maha was determined.

She didn't even want to drive normally in Riyadh; too crowded, Maha said. "But today, it's my right."

"Good morning to you," she tweeted to her friends. "Today is our hour."

At 10:11 a.m., Maha eased the family's big Hummer into traffic.

Mohammed sat in the passenger seat, slipping prayer beads through his fingers.

Maha had put on a black abaya and niqab before leaving the apartment. The rear-view mirror showed her long-lashed eyes sweeping back and forth, from cars to lights to exits.

Saudi Arabia had gained a new driver.

And a new backseat driver.

"Slow down, slow down!" Mohammed said. Maha, nervous despite her experience driving, rode the gas pedal a little hard. The Hummer, a heavy beast to stop, squealed around turns.

"You said go," she protested.

"Slow down," Mohammed repeated.

"Khalas," Maha told Mohammed, gently. Cut it out.

At 80 kilometers an hour, then 100, she rolled past other morning drivers. A Saudi driving a pickup truck loaded with watermelons drove by on the left, oblivious to the new development in the Saudi kingdom. A South Asian man passing in a taxicab on the right looked up at her, blinked, and looked away.

"Oh, my God," Maha said, spotting a police car ahead with lights flashing. Nothing happened.

Minutes later, she noisily exhaled.

At 10:36 a.m., Maha and Mohammed were back at the entrance of their apartment building's parking garage, their spin over. Tweets and online postings showed the first few other women, many also with their families, venturing out on the road.

At least some of the four police and Interior Ministry vehicles they had passed had spotted her, Maha said she thought. No one had made a move to stop her.

Satisfied? I asked Maha.

Actually, no, she said. It meant nothing if no one noticed, if other women didn't see and take courage or join her, she said.

She would go back out again with the car later. "Take Mohammed to the mosque, take the kids to do shopping, get the girls to get out," she said, of her friends. "Today, I will have the car."

UPDATE: By evening, at least two female Saudi drivers had been stopped and ticketed, including Maha. Saudi officials remained silent late Friday on why they had eased up on enforcement, after jailing women drivers as late as last week. The expressed tolerance of King Abdullah and some other royals toward women driving may have been key, leaving law officials uncertain how far to go in cracking down absent a clear directive.