Saudi Policeman Completely Flummoxed by Female Driver

A Saudi policeman checks a driver's ID in Riyadh's main street of Olaya on March 11, 2011 as Saudi Arabia launched a massive security operation in a menacing show of force to deter protesters from a planned "Day of Rage" to press for democratic reform in the kingdom. AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/2011 AFP

Saudi Arabia has almost entirely escaped the uprisings and protests that have spread throughout the Arab world in recent months. But one peaceful movement with modest goals is beginning to pick up some momentum there. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women aren't allowed to drive, probably because if women are allowed to drive, they can become self-reliant, and then what's the point of having women at all? But today Saudi women defied the driving ban in a coordinated nationwide protest, and a correspondent from Time was in the backseat when one protester was stopped by the police.

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 [her husband,] Mohammad al Qatani. Mohammad steps out of the car with the cop, and is escorted to the waiting cruiser .... 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.

It was at this point that things could have gotten pretty bad. Not, like, torture-you-until-you-learn-how-to-be-obedient bad. But a Saudi woman who posted a video of herself driving a car recently spent ten days in jail, spurring today's demonstration. Maha could have easily been locked up as well. In fact, she packed a bag for just such an occasion. But it turns out Maha was in a better situation than the police officer, who could hardly handle the moral quandary in which he had found himself.

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.

.... 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.”

And the first person, of any gender, in any country, to be ecstatic about a traffic ticket.

Making History: TIME Sits with a Woman Behind the Wheel in Saudi Arabia [Global Spin/Time]