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.