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MOSCOW -- The worried woman hunches at the wheel as if she's bracing for a crash. Through the windshield of her Lada, she peers warily at the clogged highway. Behind her, plastered on the rear window, a cheerful sticker shows a high-heeled shoe.
"Respect me!" words beneath the shoe implore.
It's a wilderness out there for Moscow's female drivers. Until recently, economics kept most Russians from owning cars. Custom ensured those who drove were men. But after a disastrous economic implosion in 1998, though, prosperity began refashioning Moscow. Salaries improved, consumer spending leaped and, for the first time, women started driving in large numbers.
Their emergence has fueled ridicule, debate and even persecution in this forward-looking city with some old-fashioned ways.
Amid the change, everyone agrees on one thing. Moscow women really do drive differently from men. That's why many women paste triangle-shaped warning stickers on their car windows. In addition to the perky high-heeled shoe, there's a picture of a girl in a bouffant, and the Cyrillic letter, "Sh," which stands for "student driver." Somewhat more obscurely, there's even a teapot -- Russian slang for "bumbling amateur."
At best, the stickers prompt automotive gallantry. But just as often, they foment a Lord of the Flies kind of aggression, goading men to honk, bark insults or careen out of the way to cut off a female driver.
"I don't know how to put this so as not to offend," offers Roma Agishev, a 23-year-old photographer in a black turtleneck. "Women are either oriented toward the rules they learned in driving school, or guided by intuition to avoid risk. Here, at least a third of the drivers don't follow rules at all. So safe driving creates dangerous situations."
Twenty-three-old bank manager Zhenya Volokva, though, says men make driving dangerous.
"Women drivers are more careful and slower," she says. "They may have kids in the car, and they're not as crazy. They're not showing off."
A recent study indicated Moscow women drive more safely than men. But anecdotes of clueless female motorists abound -- sometimes, women say, with shades of truth. The issue, they explain, is inexperience.
"Partly the stories are right," says Olga Vazhbina, 25, laughing sheepishly. "Sometimes, women will stop in the middle of traffic to talk on the cell phone. I've never seen a man who did those things." It's not too surprising, she says. Most of Moscow's female drivers have only been on the road for a few years.
Though Russian agencies don't analyze car ownership by gender, a significant number of new drivers are women, motorists and officials agree. The engine for the change is economic: Between 2000 and 2002, average wages in Moscow grew by 73.7 percent, according to Global Insight Inc., a U.S. economic forecasting firm. Cars proliferated accordingly, from about 2.1-million in 1997 to 2.5-million in 2001.
Today, one driving instructor says, most students in a class of 12 are women. Ten years ago, only one or two women would surface in a class of the same size.
"Women have started to live another way -- as much more a part of society," Vazhbina says. "Driving becomes really necessary if you want to work."
Women worked during Soviet times, but they rarely had careers. The system discouraged individual ambition for everyone, and working women additionally endured traditional gender roles.
"A woman was bringing up the family but working like a man," explains Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School for International Affairs in New York. In the 1960s, some women began quitting work in protest against the system's untenable demands.
Quitting also followed Russian custom, which dictated that the wife of a successful man stayed home. Her husband did the driving. These days, there's more status to be gained with two drivers, and two cars, in a family.
And companies are hiring women for career-track jobs, which means travel. Vazhbina, in her leopard-print silk blouse and high heels, exemplifies the new businesswoman. In 2000, when her firm assigned her a car, she first ventured onto the road. She ran into a few problems.
Specifically, she unleashed a spectacular accident.
"I lost control of the wheel, then I lost the road altogether," she says. "I hit 15 construction barrels on the way. Then I hit a big stone construction barrier. Then I went over a fence. . . . It was like a movie. When it stopped, I escaped from the car, and I was okay. The car was on the edge of a giant precipice."
She got right back behind the wheel when the crumpled car was fixed, though, and now, with more experience, says she's rather a good driver. Not that it matters: Some men, she says, just hate to see a woman at the wheel.
It's true, auto parts salesman Mikhail Brizgin agrees. His shop began peddling the now-familiar stickers two years ago. Though women buy about 10 a week, he says, the results tend to be the opposite of those desired.
Meant to inspire Russian men's traditional chivalry, the warnings seem to catalyze sexism instead.
"If you put a sticker on your car that says you are an amateur, they'll start harassing you, not letting you go past," Brizgin says.
"The best thing would be to have a sticker with a picture of a gun."