A few minutes after Rawan started her maiden drive as a student at the Saudi Driving School in Riyadh, the car began to make an ominous grinding noise. Mariam, the instructor, asked her to pull over. After an unscheduled lesson on roadside breakdowns — stay in the emergency lane, put on your hazards — she called for assistance. Then she met my eyes in the rearview mirror. “This isn’t normal,” she said nervously. “We have very good cars at our school.”
She had reason to be flustered. Her school had already experienced a PR meltdown when foreign journalists descended on the driving academy to meet student drivers a few days before Saudi Arabia’s long-standing ban on female drivers was lifted on June 24. But instead of students, they found other trainers posing as students. Once the ploy was discovered, harried school officials rounded up a few unprepared students for a media blitz. Rawan, who had never driven before, was forced to share her first lesson, and her first breakdown, with TIME.
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