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By Wendy Weitzel

I drove myself to my driving test.

In fact, I had been driving illegally in Saudi Arabia for over two years. Though the crown prince had lifted the ban on women drivers, no kingdom guidance existed for women—especially non-Saudi women—to obtain a driver’s license. Women were given the green light to drive, but were never shown how to put their foot on the pedal.

Yet I longed for validation, and I felt scrappy enough to try.

Step one, according to a questionable Facebook thread, was to get my English driver’s license translated into Arabic. I made an appointment and joined dozens of other women doing the same.

Step two happened two days later when I drove myself twenty minutes to a law office in Al Khobar to certify that the first Arabic translation was authentic.

Step three was one week after that when I drove myself forty minutes to the Department of Transportation in Dammam to get a stamp certifying that the authentication of the translation was valid. Two security checks and several armed guards later, I had my stamp.

I heard myself mutter words I never knew existed: “I miss the DMV.”

The next step was a trip to the embassy in Riyadh, four hours away, for the verification of the authentication of the certification of the translation.

But I did not drive myself to Riyadh.

I was willing to press my luck driving in Dhahran, Al Khobar, and even Dammam. But I had watched Manal al-Sharif’s YouTube fallout and read enough message boards to know that a woman driving in Riyadh—even with a valid Saudi license—was at risk of harassment, if not jail time.

A friend’s husband took a day off work to drive four women, including myself, to Riyadh. The embassy would only accept appointments on certain weekdays—days in which most men (whose permission was no longer required, but whose assistance was necessary) would be working and couldn’t accompany their wives or daughters.

At the embassy, the bemused guards pointed us toward a stuccoed building. We wandered into several rooms where men gestured at us to leave, pointing in any direction but where we were standing. In a small hallway, we finally found a closed door with a taped-up paper sign that read, “Women.”

We knocked and slowly opened the door. Three women in swivel chairs scrambled to tuck loose hair back into their hijabs, relaxing when they realized we were also just women.

They took our paperwork, then told us in English, “We will call you next week, sisters.”

“Shukran,” we answered back in stilted Arabic.

Though it felt anticlimactic, we had learned to take our wins in whatever form they came. After all, we had validated our authentic, certified, translated stamps. We had done a thing, and it might, possibly, turn into another thing that would literally validate our existence in a country where we felt consistently invisible, incapacitated, and often despised.

Still, we left with no receipts, no copies of our documents, and no idea whether this would actually work.

One week later, I received a phone call:

“Please arrive at Sharq Driving School, Sunday morning at 10 a.m.”

That was it. No address, no further details.

I texted my friends: “What’s a shark driving school?”

“It’s Sharq, with a q,” Kel replied. “It’s in Dammam.”

“I dreamed I couldn’t turn on my car and failed the test,” Cami added.

“Raise your hand if you’re going to practice parallel parking this weekend,” said Liz.

On Sunday, January 3, 2021, I arrived at yet another stuccoed building filled with women, both Saudi and expat. Every woman in that room had the same goal: independence. The feeling of unity was palpable. I wanted to hold it, to bottle it up, to carry it with me always.

The women surrounding me felt like giants, and I was a mouse scurrying at their feet.

Imagine their bravery!

Not only to drive, but to drive in the Middle East, where the erratic roads meant getting in a car at all was taking your life into your hands. Let alone doing it for the first time as an adult woman, who had been told her entire life that she couldn’t—that her chemical makeup somehow precluded her from performing that function.

Imagine their courage!

To burst forth from invisible shackles toward an equally invisible independence. To first form the notion, “maybe I can,” and to pursue that truth with unimaginable persistence.

I was humbled, and grateful, and ready, and scared.

The mechanics of the day were, as all things, overly complicated. I got a number, waited in line, gave my name, and waited in line again. I presented my documents at a counter and held my breath, still expecting to fail. I was called outside to await my test.

I watched three other women drive. Each of them performed the same, simple route: straight, u-turn, left turn, parallel park, back into a parking spot. I roiled with inexplicable anticipation.

When it was my turn, I spoke to the female proctor in the passenger seat.

“I’m nervous.”

She held a clipboard and looked at me with kind eyes, which were all I could see of her face beneath her niqab.

“Don’t worry, sister,” she assured me. “We are not here to fail women.”

In the almost four years I had lived in Saudi Arabia, I had never felt that sentiment. I had never believed that anyone wanted me to succeed.

She pointed toward the road, and I drove straight, u-turned, left turned, parallel parked, and backed into a parking spot. I passed the test and received my Saudi driver’s license.

I tucked her words away; they meant more to me than she had intended. I would need them, again and again, to adhere to my heart, to pump through my system on repeat:

We are not here to fail women.

I am a woman. I am here. But I am not here to fail.



Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Young People from Lesley University, and a BA from BYU in Humanities. She teaches English at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She enjoys running (slowly), eating all the candy, and climbing real (and metaphorical) mountains. She recently won first place and third place in the StoryMakers First Chapter contest (May 2023) for middle grade fiction. She writes middle grade novels, picture books, and creative nonfiction.