Daring to Drive : A Saudi Woman’s Awakening By Manal al-Sharif
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017, 289 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Persis Karim
While the Arab Spring of 2011 is long behind us, and it delivered far less than many across the region hoped for, it is hard to forget the energy and courage of the individuals who sparked a movement that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In a manner of months, millions mobilized on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, and Sana’a to challenge some of the most repressive and long-standing dictatorships in the region. The images of people, especially young people, flooding the streets played nightly on television and social media. But the instrumental role that women played in many of those movements was often pushed aside by the revolutionary fervor that called for regime change.
However, one quiet revolt, initiated and led by women, fought for something more basic than a change of leadership: the right to drive a car. For Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman at the heart of the campaign to challenge the kingdom’s prohibition on women’s driving, the Arab Spring was fundamentally a struggle for women’s freedom.
Daring to Drive documents al-Sharif’s role in the 2011 women2drive campaign. Even more, it portrays the complexity of Saudi legal and cultural restrictions, which undermine women in everyday life through the institution of mahram: male guardianship. Part memoir and part manifesto, Daring to Drive provides a rare glimpse into a society about which most Americans know very little; our images are limited to two tropes: individual Saudis as the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks; and periodic news photos of male Saudi leaders in traditional dress standing next to US presidents and their (unveiled) wives. Rarely do these images include Saudi women. We do not hear them speak or understand their stories.
I had the opportunity to work with al-Sharif during the proposal phase of her book. Initially, she conceived of it as a way to bring international attention to Saudi women’s struggle to do something women elsewhere take for granted: drive a car. The book she has written, however, is far more developed and wide-ranging; it not only documents her daring act of driving, but also the abuses heaped on females, including being unable to do nearly anything without the consent of a male guardian. For Saudi women, driving represents far more than simply taking the wheel of a car. Women must obtain the permission of a male relative to go anywhere—school, work, shopping, whom to marry and any kind of travel. Because women are forbidden to drive, they must rely on either a male relative or a hired male driver to transport them. “It is an amazing contradiction,” writes al-Sharif:
A society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that males and females cannot sit together; that society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone.
Al-Sharif dispels the myth of Saudi Arabia as a land of wealthy sheiks and hidden women through her detailed narrative about her life and that of her atypical family. Her parents, both illiterate and poor, met during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Her mother was from Libya, and her father was a taxi driver who shuttled pilgrims from around the world to and from the holy sites of Mecca. They were far from stereotypical rich Saudis who have so much money they can travel and shop abroad in the most exclusive shopping malls of Europe and the US. On the contrary, her family struggled economically, and al-Sharif often went without the things her peers had—adequate food, books, and many everyday comforts such as adequate housing. The family was ostracized because her father had married outside his tribe and culture: in Saudi Arabia, even those from other Muslim and Arab countries are seen as outsiders, regardless of how long they have lived there. Al-Sharif describes a childhood that was full of depravity and hardship, including regular beatings at the hands of her parents and teachers, and a traumatic circumcision that left her with psychological and physical scars. (In an email to me after the book came out, she wrote that she hadn’t thought about the circumcision for many years, until she started writing.)
Perhaps because of her poverty and marginalization, al-Sharif as a young girl was determined not to be left out or left behind. She became a passionate lover of reading, full of curiosity about the world. Trips to visit her mother’s family in Egypt showed her an alternative to the strict Saudi-style Salafi Islam. But at the age of thirteen, as a result of her education and constant radical preaching on TV, she started to change, she writes, from a “moderately observant Muslim into a radical Islamist.” After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the attack, that same year, on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by insurgents who wanted to overthrow the House of Saud, Saudi religious restrictions and the trend toward fundamentalism throughout the region intensified. “Religious sermons and leaflets were distributed for free in common gathering places,” writes al-Sharif. She began to feel judgmental of women who did not follow the rules of veiling and fasting, and she participated in “disavowals,” in which she and her peers “express[ed] our hate and enmity” toward “infidels.”
As she grew more devout, she chose to wear the niqab (a full-body covering, including the face, with slits for the eyes). At the same time, however, she was performing well in school and wanted to attend university, but because she had witnessed her father’s protest at her sister Muna’s decision to attend the College of Medicine, a mixed university, she chose instead to attend King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (a women’s university). There, she was exposed to a variety of behaviors, customs and cultures, but “nothing did more to change my ideas and convictions than the advent of the Internet, and later, social media,” al-Sharif writes. Ultimately, it was on the internet that she read articles that challenged her beliefs and her country’s “extremist” form of Islam.
After al-Sharif graduated with a degree in computer science, she found a job at ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company (formerly the Arabian American oil company, which had been a majority American-owned company until the 1980s). While working and living on the ARAMCO compound, which was a sort of American colony, she enjoyed the same freedoms as the American and international workers. Men and women worked together. And it was on the compound that she bought a car and learned to drive. Women could drive inside the compound, but not on Saudi roads: for errands or family visits offsite, she had to hire a male driver.
These contradictions—her freedoms as an ARAMCO employee, her ability to drive on company property but not in her own country—finally became too much. Al-Sharif became an “accidental activist” after an incident in which she found herself in Khobar City at dusk after a doctor’s appointment, without a driver to take her home. As she waited for a driver, men yelled at her, calling her “whore” and “prostitute.” The next day she told a male colleague about the harassment, and he informed her that, technically, there was no law prohibiting women from driving—it was simply culture and custom.
After the conversation with her co-worker, al-Sharif made an impulsive but important, life-changing decision: she would get behind the wheel of her car and “dare to drive.” Within days of her decision she saw a Facebook event called “We are driving May 17th,” organized by a young woman named Bahiya. She contacted the woman and asked if she could be added as an administrator. Because she had witnessed the use of social media, and Facebook in particular, in the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Sharif decided that she too would use these platforms to organize a much larger driving protest. On the advice of a friend, she created a Twitter account (her handle was @Women2Drive) and almost immediately began to connect with some of the more than 2.4 million Twitter users.
“When social media began to flourish during the Arab Spring of 2011,” she writes, “I found myself in possession of a voice—a miraculous thing in a country where women are almost never heard.” In her Twitter profile, she wrote “We call on all Saudi women to drive on June 17.” After organizing day and night to get women to commit to driving on that day, she decided to make an informational video for Women2Drive in preparation for the June 17 action. Although she was careful not to call it a protest, on May 17, she got behind the wheel. She did not hide her face, and she spoke her entire name in the video. She filmed herself driving, calmly stating, “We are your sisters, your mothers, your daughters. We expect your support, and now we’re giving you the chance to show it.” Her final words were, “The whole story: that we will just drive.”
Al-Sharif’s daring first step of filming herself driving and posting it on YouTube got her more than 120,000 views on the first day. Many of the reactions to the video were positive, but many more were critical, harsh, angry, threatening, even, and many suggested that al-Sharif was under the influence of foreigners. Two days later, she was arrested and jailed. She quickly became known around the world through news coverage of the Arab Spring and the social media campaign to free her, which reached international news outlets. Finally, with immense international pressure, including from human rights organizations, after eleven days, al-Sharif was freed. The June 17 event, however, did not take place.
Like the other activists who risked so much during the Arab Spring, al-Sharif paid a high price. She was shunned at her job, and eventually told to keep quiet. But the final threat to her job at ARAMCO came when she was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, after she had been informed that she would receive the 2012 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She was told that if she went to Oslo, she would lose her job. Yet, she felt she had to speak out. Her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum went viral on YouTube, but within her own country, her success had turned her into an “enemy of Saudi Arabia and a traitor to Islam,” she explains. Due to the threats and fears for her safety, she soon realized she had no choice but to leave Saudi Arabia. She went to Dubai with the man she would eventually marry, a Brazilian consultant to ARAMCO, whom she had met just before she left her job. Today, al-Sharif lives in Australia, and because she married a non-Saudi, she cannot reside in her country and sees her Saudi-born son from her first marriage, Aboudi, only during short visits.
Al-Sharif showed bravery and resilience in speaking out about her country and its religious practices, which harm half the population. In Daring to Drive, she shares a powerful story of her awakening as a Saudi and an activist, advocating for women’s rights to tell their own stories and determine their own fates.
Persis Karim is a professor of Comparative & World Literature and the director of the newly established Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the editor of three anthologies of Iranian diaspora literature and a poet. More information at: www.persiskarim.com.