She got her driver’s license in Indiana. She likes to drive fast.
And on Friday, Maha Qahtani, 39, in a face-covering niqab, raced through the streets of Riyadh in her family’s blue Hummer H3, defying Saudi Arabia’s religion-inspired bans on female motorists.
In all, nearly three dozen Saudi women got behind the wheels of various vehicles Friday, human rights activists said, in what was billed on social networking websites as a day of defiance against the ultra-conservative kingdom’s longstanding driving decrees.
In an age of mass demonstrations, it may have been smaller than many. On the other hand, it was the least pedestrian protest since a slew of pro-democracy uprisings began sweeping the Middle East early this year.
It was also particularly novel and eye-opening, considering where it took place.
Bolstered by oil revenues and empowered by a ubiquitous security apparatus, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most autocratic regimes, has been relatively immune to the “Arab Spring” protests roiling the region. The Saud ruling family, a staunch U.S. ally, has not felt the same international pressure for reform as other nearby nations, and it rarely brooks dissent among its citizenry.
But that went out the window of Qahtani’s Hummer on Friday.
The mother of four, who lived in the Midwest for 11 years while she and her husband attended school, zipped down King Fahd Avenue, the capital’s main street, and onto Tahlia Street, another major thoroughfare, her husband in the passenger seat and two journalists in the rear.
Just before 6 p.m., police in six squad cars pulled her over. They ordered her from behind the wheel and into the passenger’s seat. But they seemed more terrified than Qahtani.
They let her off with a ticket for driving without a Saudi driver’s license. She was elated, laughing about the incident.
“I think it’s kind of a duty to do it,” said Qahtani, a computer specialist at the Education Ministry. “It’s my right and no one is supposed to say no to me. It makes me sick when I hear people saying that it’s better for women to stay home.”
It was a daring initiative. Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. In addition to being barred from driving in cities across the nation, women cannot travel on their own without authorization from a male guardian, cannot receive an education without male approval, and are not allowed to cast ballots in municipal elections — the only kind currently held in the absolute monarchy.
Saudi women who have rebelled against the driving bans in the past have been arrested, lost their jobs and been scorned by hard-line Sunni Muslim religious figures. By late Friday, there were numerous unconfirmed reports of arrests of other participants, who also hold licenses from other nations.
Earlier in the day, video clips said to show Saudi women driving appeared to be flooding the Internet. One clip uploaded to YouTube showed an unnamed woman dressed in a face-to toe-covering black veil talking as she drove to a supermarket at dawn. The women seemed eager to dispel stereotypes about Saudi women.
“Try not to focus on my face but on hands,” one woman demands of the man filming her from the passenger’s seat.
Qahtani, for her part, says driving is an absolute necessity for her as she juggles working and raising children, ages 9 to 15.
“They need somebody to drop them off,” she said.
She’s tried hiring drivers but usually relies on her husband, Mohammed, an economist who heads a human rights organization, to get her around, she said. But she despises taking taxis, because the drivers are sometimes rude or incompetent. She said they also are not the best or most reliable.
“Sometimes you end up driving with crazy people,” she said.
Qahtani, who learned to drive in Bloomington, Ind., said she became aware of the driving demonstration on Facebook. Others responded to calls on Twitter for the “Women2Drive” campaign, saying they would take part in the action that campaign organizers billed as a bid to claim basic rights as human beings rather than a political protest.
“We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves,” read a statement posted on the group’s Facebook site, I will Drive Starting June 17, before Saudi authorities took it down. “We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driver’s licenses and we will abide by traffic laws.”
The Facebook group had garnered more than 11,000 supporters and a couple of thousand follow the campaign on Twitter.
Saudi authorities recently cracked down on the suspected organizers of Women2Drive. Computer security consultant Manal Sharif, 32, was detained for 10 days in May on accusations of inciting women to defy the ban after she posted a video on YouTube of herself driving. She was released after signing a statement promising she wouldn’t drive or speak publicly on driving again.
Amnesty International called on Saudi Arabia this week to stop treating women as “second-class citizens” and to allow them to drive.
“Saudi Arabian authorities must not arrest licensed women drivers who choose to drive, and must grant them the same driving privileges as men,” Philip Luther, the organization’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, sad in a statement. “This is just one example of so many areas of life where women in Saudi Arabia have their human rights and their agency denied.”
The last time a group of Saudi women organized a mass driving action was in 1990. Several reportedly lost their jobs and were denounced as immoral by powerful religious leaders.
Qahtani seemed to fare better Friday and hopes such actions will lead to change.
“Women need a lot of rights,” she said. “Women need jobs. We need a better system, better life, and a better education. People have to change. The government should listen to them.”
Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.