Zainab Zawol Shahidy behind the wheel in Kabul. (Family photo)

Seventeen-year-old Zainab Zawol Shahidy was driving her Toyota 4Runner home from school in Kabul recently when she noticed two men in a vehicle following her. “One of them pointed a gun at me and threatened me to drive along in their direction, but I refused and kept driving faster to reach home as soon as I could,” she said.

She was forced to pull over when they blocked her. One of the men threw a slip of paper at her with his phone number and said if she didn’t call him, he would kidnap her. She made it home and called security. Thankfully she has not seen these men since.

Although there are a growing numbers of women drivers in Kabul, the sight of Shahidy behind the wheel is still unusual. Everywhere she goes, she gets curious stares and frequent harassment, ranging from people making fun of her for driving to threats. “I can’t drive to places too distant from where I live due to the risk of kidnapping,” she told me through the translation of her brother, Ali Shahidy, a psychology major at Norwich University in Vermont.

Despite the risk and danger, Shahidy says she loves to drive. Besides, she said, she faces more harassment when she walks or takes public transportation.

Some of Shahidy’s relatives believe her driving is dishonorable and will reflect poorly on them, but her immediate family strongly supports her decision, including her older brother Ali. Although the cultural norm is that elders drive, Ali rides as a passenger when he is with her because, he says, “I want both men and women to see us together and to see her driving.”

“The more people who see women driving on streets, the more common it becomes,” he said. “It is changing now. One could rarely see a female driver in Kabul many years ago. But today we have more women drivers than we ever had.”

Noorjahan Akbar, an activist, blogger and American University master’s student, agrees. When she learned to drive in Afghanistan a few years ago, she recalls passing a group of children. One of the girls looked up and yelled in Pashtu, “Look, it’s a girl!” For many youths, seeing someone like Akbar or Shahidy behind the wheel is the first time they have seen a woman drive.

In 1992, after the communist regime was ousted in Afghanistan, women were discouraged from driving. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, women were banned from driving; the penalty was death. Once the Taliban rule ended, a trickle of women began driving. In 2002, for example, seven of the 8,698 driver’s licenses issued were to women, and in 2003, Medica Mondiale, a German medical organization, began teaching women to drive. Fast forward a decade and 20 times as many women received a driver’s license, 140 in 2012.

Akbar finds harassment and opposition today usually comes from “re-radicalized youth who are influenced by Islamist propaganda.” In contrast, the older generation who remember when women had more freedom and drove are “less combative,” she said.

Islam does not expressly prohibit women from driving, so the laws and cultural norms vary across ultra-conservative Islamic countries. Although it is legal for women to drive in Afghanistan, it is illegal in Saudi Arabia, where in recent years, women have organized campaigns to challenge the law. Women can drive in Dubai but the government supports women-only pink taxis driven by women for women. In Qatar, driving is legal, but few families allow their female members to drive. Cheryl Benard, sociologist and author of “Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance,” told me “Many Qatari women have a weekend hobby of racing around the family’s private estate because they love to drive but are not allowed out on the public streets.”

Benard points out that the variation in laws and customs is, in part, because of conservatives seeing pros and cons to women driving. On the one hand, not driving “restricts women’s independent mobility, often supported by a moral argument that this would leave women unsupervised and able to meet with a lover.” On the other hand, she says, for women who need to leave the house at some point, the reality is “taxis and public transportation throw women into close physical proximity with male strangers.”

In Afghanistan, the increase in women drivers is more a matter of necessity and convenience than women consciously wanting to challenge cultural restrictions. Also, more women today are making their own money and have the financial freedom to buy a vehicle. In fact, Akbar sees the increase in women drivers as being spurred by economics.

“Women can now finally afford to buy their own cars and this economic shift is preparing people’s minds for the cultural change,” she said. “It is the middle and upper class women who have the privilege to buy cars and who by doing so are creating the cultural shift, not the other way around.”

With each new woman who drives – no matter her reason – it increases the likelihood that people will see a woman navigating the streets from the driver’s seat and with time, hopefully they will see it as commonplace. The Afghan Sisters Driving School in Herat City is working toward that goal. They have trained more than 300 women to drive over the past few years, and there are three other driving schools that accept female students.

Shahidy looks forward to the day when she can drive down the street without stares and harassment. Not only does she love driving, she also sees it as a way she can make a difference.

“By driving my own car in Kabul, I want to be a role model for other girls and women,” she said. “I always encourage other women to drive, too.”

Holly Kearl is the author of “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women” and a consultant to UN Women.