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Women banned from driving

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Saudi women banned from driving

At just after 10 o'clock on Friday morning Maha al-Qahtani swapped places with her husband, Mohammed, and took the wheel of the family car.

For the next 50 minutes, she drove through the Saudi capital, along the six-lane King Fahd Road, through Cairo Square, down the upmarket Olaya Street with its shopping malls, Starbucks, Apple store and boutiques.

"No one tried to stop us. No one even looked," the 39-year-old civil servant said. "We drove past police cars but had no trouble."

In fact, the biggest problem for Qahtani was her husband sitting next to her in the family Hummer. "He kept telling me to slow down or speed up. He was very fussy," she said.

This is Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that bans women from driving motor vehicles.

Qahtani was part of a small but striking movement of women determined to do something about it.

The exact number of Saudi women who protested was unclear. It was certainly not a mass movement.

By mid-afternoon a handful had driven in Riyadh, a few in the southern port city of Jeddah, a couple in Dammam in the east, perhaps 30 or 40 overall in a country with a population of 27 million including migrant labourers.

But it was a breakthrough. In the closed and authoritarian kingdom, such open and premeditated dissent is extremely rare. Under the spotlight of international attention, Saudi Arabia's rulers had clearly decided to allow the protest to go ahead.

"It is not the issue of women's driving itself which poses a problem, it is the challenge to authority," said a political analyst, Khaled al-Dhakil. "But … change is eroding that authority."