Note: This post contains affiliate links.Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
Published by Simon & Schuster on June 13, 2017
Pages: 304 (ARC)
Goodreads | Amazon
On a list compiled by Newsweek and The Daily Beast of the best countries for women, Saudi Arabia ranks number 147 out of 165–not exactly a sterling recommendation. It is known as one of the most oppressive places on earth for women.
Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, home of the famed Masjid al-Haram–the Grand Mosque and destination to millions of Muslim pilgrims each year. In 1979 radical armed dissidents captured tens of thousands of pilgrims as hostages and barricaded themselves in the Masjid al-Haram for two weeks. After the siege of the Grand Mosque, the country became much more radicalized.
In school, we were taught to go home and lecture our parents about prayer and sins, most of which involved the behavior of women. Those born female in Saudi society now pass through two stages in their lives. First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged.
At the age of ten, Manal began to wear the niqab of her own free will, influenced by the radical indoctrination she received at school. By the early 1990s, the veil was imposed on all schoolgirls.
Manal recalls that she became truly radicalized one particular day when she was thirteen. That day, her teacher gave a lecture about the terrors of hell and the grave. The teacher demanded a student volunteer to be wrapped in burial cloth like the dead and commanded the students to go home and “seclude [themselves] in a dark and quiet place…in order for [them] to feel the loneliness of the grave.” This frightening narrative of life and death prompted Manal to carefully observe every minutiae of Sunni law, burn her brother’s Backstreet Boy cassette tapes, and destroy her beloved Barbie doll.
Manal’s account of her childhood has a distinctly claustrophobic feel to it. As a girl, she was confined to her family’s tiny apartment whenever she was not in school or at mosque. Her descriptions of her teachers are strongly reminiscent of Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, bent on messages of hellfire and corporal punishment. Peace was not to be found at home either. Her parents fought constantly and there was an air of brutality central to most of her family’s interactions that seems to have been born out of the brutal culture in which they were steeped.
Manal’s story illustrates the self-directed misogyny of women so often found in patriarchal societies. For example, it was Manal’s mother who pushed hardest for Manal and her sister to be “circumcised” (read: castrated). Manal and her sister, by resisting and appealing to the mercy of their father, escaped infibulation or type III female genital mutilation (FGM)–which involves removal of the clitoris, labia, and involves sewing almost the entire vaginal opening shut–only to later fall victim to type I FGM, in which only the clitoris is removed. Though FGM is technically illegal in Saudi Arabia and less common than in other countries, such as Egypt, it still happens at an alarming rate, and most of the practitioners of this hateful assault on female sexuality are women.
The one positive influence Manal’s mother had on her life was the importance she placed on education. While Manal’s father was reluctant to send his daughter off to college, Manal’s mother assisted her daughter in this endeavor. Eventually, Manal received a degree in computer science and was offered a job at ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company–the first woman to be offered a job in her division.'Daring to Drive' Is an Amazing Story of CourageClick To Tweet
The ARAMCO compound is a vast, sprawling metropolis built in the style of an American town. This is because the company was once owned by Americans and still employs people from all over the world. The rules that govern Saudi life are suspended within the compound, including the ban on driving. That does not mean, however, that misogyny remains outside its walls. Manal was frequently denied opportunities her male coworkers were automatically granted and was the subject of gossip and scorn as a result of her innocent interactions with a male employee.
It was first her education and later the confusing combination of freedom and prejudice Manal experienced in the ARAMCO compound that led her to the breaking point where she could no longer passively accept the misogyny of her culture. She decided to drive–not in the ARAMCO compound but outside its walls where she risked harassment and imprisonment. It was then that she became the face of the Women2Drive movement, which aims to end the prejudiced, dangerous, and, quite frankly, ridiculous restrictions on women’s mobility and autonomy.
This decision sparked something powerful in the women of Saudi Arabia, but it also led to unimaginable trials for Manal. Even though there is no actual law against women driving, Manal was arrested and held in prison without justification. Eventually, she had to leave the country, and in doing so, leave behind her young son in the care of her violent ex-husband. Saudi custody laws are just as unforgiving to women as every other aspect of its radicalized code.
Daring to Drive is one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year. It takes a lot for a book to get me emotionally worked up, but I had so many strong feelings while reading this–grief for the cloistered women of Saudi Arabia, joy at their triumphs, however small, and, most of all, rage at the religious teachers, authorities, bureaucrats, and family patriarchs who continue to use their power to crush women under the weight of their own fear. The bottom line: you need to read this book.
If you like Daring to Drive, also try Headscarves and Hymens by Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy, who also lived in Saudi Arabia for some of her teenage years.
Have you read Daring to Drive? Share your thoughts in the comments below!