With its vast, unpopulated deserts, low-slung buildings and cheap oil, Saudi Arabia is a kingdom made for cars. But for its women, who are barred from driving, even picking up the dry cleaning is considered subversive. Last spring, Manal al-Sharif, 32, a divorced mother of two, decided to take on the issue by posting on YouTube a video of herself driving the Saudi streets. Though al-Sharif was jailed for nine days and publicly shamed, she inspired a movement. An underground civil-disobedience campaign encouraged women to drive to the grocery store, the doctor's office or the kids' school. Those thankless errands may plague women elsewhere, but in Saudi Arabia, where they must rely on husbands, fathers and hired drivers to get around, they are a long-dreamed-of privilege.
Lifting the ban has gained much support, but it has also sparked a backlash. Other female drivers have been imprisoned, and some even lashed. But because of al-Sharif, Saudi women are beginning to get in the driver's seat.
Baker is TIME's Middle East bureau chief