Saudi women take to the road in show of defiance

'Independent' correspondent sees her female driver stopped and questioned by police after joining historic day of protest
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"I have some gifts to buy for one of my daughter's friends," said Maha Al Qahtani, a Saudi mother of four, and before we knew it we were in the back of her family car, with her husband sitting in the passenger seat.

As we left the car park, we saw some expatriate workers on the side of the street staring at the driver, but she seemed unfazed.

Her husband, Mohammed Al Qahtani, a professor at a university in Riyadh, continuously told her how to negotiate the traffic. "Stay in this lane!" he urged. "Slow down! You're going too fast." As we pulled out of the lane near her house, a car faced her head on and she turned to her husband and said: "Has he no sense? I'm a woman!"

Maha manoeuvred effortlessly across King Fahad Highway in spite of the heavy traffic that was building up. "I would never have come out at this time if I had known that the roads were going to be so crowded," she said.

Her husband told us that she had been driving for years in the US and was an excellent driver. "You would never know he thought that by the way he has been yelling at me," she laughed.

Maha was one of several Saudi women who yesterday defied the ultra-conservative kingdom's rule against women being able to drive. To many reform-minded women, the ban on driving typifies the country's general attitude towards women's rights, which manifests itself with bans on voting and on travelling without the permission of a male guardian.

But despite the international interest in Saudi women's version of a day of rage, Maha expressed a sense of disappointment tinged with betrayal at the fact that there were so few Saudi women who seemed to be on the streets.

"I think I expected more women to go out today, not just sit at home and tweet," she said. "Maybe they have their reasons, but I feel today it is my duty to say this is my right and we should have it."

She had even packed an overnight bag for her stay in prison in the event she was caught – "You know, some comfortable clothes for the night, deodorant and some small prayer rugs to pray on and sleep on because I hear that the prison is not very clean."

Was she scared? Had she thought through what the repercussions might be? "You know, I asked some of my friends but they were terrified that I might go to jail. But if no one is going to make sacrifices then no one is going to get their rights. To me, this is the first step when we get our rights for driving, not only for women, but for men as well."

We drove further until we got off the highway at Tahlia Street and made a U-turn. It was then that I noticed a car with flashing lights that seemed to be closing up on us. It promptly overtook us and flagged us down. Maha narrowly avoided hitting it and we remained at the side of the highway.

A second police car then pulled up behind us and after a few minutes there were a total of six cars flanking us from all sides. An officer knocked on the window and asked her to lower it. Mohammed continuously repeated, "don't be nervous".

The police officer saw her husband in the passenger seat and demanded that he hand over his ID. As he fumbled to get it out, the policeman said: "Faster! Faster! I said faster!" and then asked him to step out of the car. Mohammed gladly agreed and I caught a glimpse of him getting into the back of the police car, grinning widely.

Another officer then approached Maha and told her to switch off the engine, which she did as we baked in the desert heat. "What are you doing?" he demanded. "Is your husband unable to drive?" "No," she responded coolly. "He knows how to drive. He can drive. But this is my right."

The officer seemed embarrassed, smiled sheepishly and appeared to have no ready response to her defiance.

After about 10 minutes Mohammed returned to the car and asked Maha for her international driving licence. He seemed to be in good spirits and confident that the police were not going to make problems for them. "I heard an officer on the radio while I was in the car," he assured his wife. "He said just issue a ticket and let you go."

A small crowd had gathered to make sense of what was going on and were being shooed away by what seemed like a congregation of police officers who had all been called to the unlikely roadside scene.

A captain, who seemed to be in charge, subsequently approached the car and asked Maha very politely to get into the passenger seat.

All in all, Maha was exuberant: "I think I made my statement clear. I think that my voice has been heard."

Her husband echoed her sentiments as he drove home. "This has been a huge victory. I felt so bad for the officers though," he confided. "They were just so embarrassed. They didn't know how to react.

When I told Maha that I had to leave she asked with a glint in her eye: "Do you need a ride?"