December 10, 2017


Manal al-Sharif flashes the victory sign from behind the wheel of her car | AFP
Manal al-Sharif flashes the victory sign from behind the wheel of her car | AFP

The royal decree by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, to come into effect June 2018, granting women the right to drive may not have much significance to the world, but for Saudi women — especially women’s rights activists such as Manal al-Sharif — it can be termed a huge success.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women have been banned from driving. Those who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. For some time, women activists have been working to loosen this and other restrictions that women in Saudi Arabia have to face.

Al-Sharif’s debut book, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, is not just a personal story of her struggle for equal rights; it also offers an insight into Saudi society. Readers learn that without the consent of a male guardian — father, husband or even a son — Saudi women cannot travel abroad, rent an apartment, take a loan, get an identification card or even register a child for school. “Taboos included wearing pants, styling one’s hair, and even parting one’s hair on the side — because doing so causes a woman to resemble the infidels,” writes Al-Sharif.

Warning: vehicles may not be operated by the ‘wrong’ gender

In Saudi society, lives are governed by customs that are often more powerful than any written law. For instance, custom decreed that Al-Sharif could not meet her male cousins once she reached adolescence; custom pushed her father, as her male guardian, to take her to and from college every day even though that meant him losing time at work. When she tried to understand why women were forbidden from driving, she learned that it was also mere custom; there was nothing in the official Saudi traffic rules that indicated it was illegal for women to drive.

Brought up in this binding atmosphere to follow the rules and listen to men, Al-Sharif was indoctrinated at school where “60 percent of what we studied was religion ... The only non-academic subjects the girls were permitted to take were sewing, drawing and home economics.”

She gives a compelling account of her upbringing in Makkah, of her family’s impoverished living conditions and schooling where religious studies were dominant. She describes the extremist attack on Makkah in 1979 and the resultant fundamentalism that swept through Saudi Arabia, pushing the country into orthodoxy, and the growing influence of the Wahabi interpretation of Islam that led to stricter rules and increasing restrictions on women.

In her adolescence, Al-Sharif believed in the doctrine. She burned her sister’s novels and melted her brother’s CDs in the oven because music was “haram” [forbidden] in Islam. Her mother hid the family photographs to protect them from her. She also experimented with wearing the face-covering niqab. However, she continued with her education, graduated in computer science from a university in Jeddah and became the country’s first woman in information security at Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil and gas company (originally an American consortium). At Aramco she interacted with men and lived in a desert compound where Saudi rules didn’t apply so strictly.

Her stay in the United States for a few months under an exchange programme introduced her to a world she didn’t even know existed. She could open a bank account, drive a car and do anything she liked. She stopped wearing hijab, and once back in Saudi Arabia wore it only at work. Her freedom to drive in the US strengthened her desire to drive in Saudi Arabia, which eventually led to her becoming a women’s rights activist.

By this time, not being able to do anything without the permission of a man had started to get her down and she began to question the state of affairs. She writes, “It’s an amazing contradiction: 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 unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same 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 owned a car and knew how to drive, but Saudi custom forbade her from doing so. Her breaking point came when, on her way back from a doctor’s appointment in the city of Al Khobar — a 15-minute drive from where she lived in Dahran — she had to walk down the street trying to find a taxi while men drove past, jeering at her. One man followed her for so long that, terrified, she eventually threw a rock at his car before bursting into tears.

That day Al-Sharif declared on her Facebook page that she would drive outside the Aramco compound. Soon after, she was invited to join a Facebook event, ‘We are Driving on May 17’ (the event was postponed to June 17). She also registered a Twitter account with the handle @Women2Drive. Thus began the women’s right to drive campaign.

Inspired by the story of an earlier protest in 1990, when 47 women drove their cars on the streets of Riyadh to protest the ban on driving, Al-Sharif posted a video on YouTube and Facebook of herself driving. She knew the consequences and knew that her predecessors had been arrested, detained for a day, had their passports confiscated and some of them lost their jobs, yet she took the chance.

The next day she was arrested by the secret police and spent a week in a cockroach-infested prison. The offence on the charge sheet read: “Driving while female.” She became the target of false accusations and death threats and was released on condition of returning for questioning when required, not driving and not talking to the media.

Al-Sharif’s struggle cost her her job, her country and her son Aboudi. But her struggle is about to bear fruit in the shape of royal decrees from the king allowing women to work in shops and lifting the ban on driving.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s
By Manal Al-Sharif
Simon and Schuster, US
ISBN: 978-1471164408

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 10th, 2017