MANAL AL-SHARIF Daring to Drive: The young Saudi woman who stood up to a kingdom of men. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan
One of the pleasures of al-Sharif’s book is the insight it gives into how women negotiate their way through chinks in the wall of oppression.
This enthralling autobiography begins, as many books do, with its most dramatic moment: ‘The secret police came for me at two in the morning.’ Al-Sharif describes how she locks the door and prays for guidance before agreeing to go away with them. She is taken straight to prison. The citation is ‘driving while female’.
Her arrest makes news in the Arab and international media, while Saudi newspapers call her a spy intent on destabilising the kingdom. She is condemned in the mosques for seeking to destroy Islam. There are calls for her to be publicly flogged. For ten days she is in limbo, neither formally charged nor allowed to see her lawyer.
It’s only much later in the book that we find out how she comes to be released. Her father, an illiterate taxi driver, together with the chief of the al-Sharif tribe, travels to the royal palace in Jeddah to petition the King, something any man has the right to do. After paying a scribe to write up his petition and waiting in the queue, they are received by King Abdullah and are able to give the elaborate formal apology for Manal’s action of driving while female and the disturbance that it has caused. The apology is accepted and Manal is released that same day. The men have sorted it out according to ancient Arab customs, but the modern world has also weighed in – the King has been embarrassed by the fuss in the international press.
To Western eyes it would seem that ‘existing while female’ is the essential crime in Saudi Arabia, so obsessive is the concern with regulating every aspect of women’s lives. But no authority is absolute and one of the pleasures of this book is the insight it gives into how women negotiate their way through chinks in the wall of oppression, spaces that often appear where mediaeval custom meets 21st-century technology. So, for example, to get around the ban on driving, women keep a list of unregistered drivers in their phone, relying on them if a registered taxi or male relative isn’t available. The irony of a society that will not allow unrelated men and women to sit together in any public place, yet tolerates a woman getting alone into a car driven by a complete stranger, is but one of many described in the book.
Daring to Drive is much more than the story of a campaign by Saudi women against the ban on driving. It’s an informative and deeply evocative memoir about resilience, cunning and courage.
Manal al-Sharif grew up in a poor but culturally rich family in the holy city of Mecca. She inherited her strong will and fierce love of education from her mother, who was determined her daughters would not marry until they had finished university. And yet, in another bitter irony, she subjected her daughters to a form of genital mutilation, performed when Manal was eight, without anaesthetic, by the local barber.
During her teenage years al-Sharif became totally immersed in the extreme Salafi form of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia, accepting all the rules and restrictions as being for her own spiritual benefit. Any contact with men was forbidden, in fact leaving the apartment at all except to go to mosque or school was frowned on. Not only did she shun photography, drawing, reading fiction and music, but she tried to get her siblings to do so as well, causing even more tension.
At university, exposed to a wider group of young people, she gradually came to realise that there were different ways of being a good Muslim, such as when she noticed that her university friend Sara didn’t cover her face with a niqab when she left the campus.
One day she tried the same thing:
Outside on the street, I lifted my niqab and placed it in my handbag. The first thing I sensed was the air on my skin as I walked. I felt it touch my cheeks, my forehead, and all the other parts of my face for the first time since I was still a girl. Breathing felt different, too: the barrier was gone, and I finally inhaled freely … I kept my head down; I felt completely naked whenever a man walked by, and I quickened my step to disappear from his sight.
But it was, of all things, her brother’s cassette of the Backstreet Boys, listened to in secret, guiltily but with huge enjoyment, that caused the first real crack in her fundamentalist beliefs.
A pioneer in so many ways, she graduated in computer science and was appointed to the state-run petrochemical company Aramco, the only female professional technician in the Information Protection division.
But all her education, bravery and strength of character were no match for the ‘sleepy, almond-shaped eyes and long, dark eyelashes’ of a man carrying a tray of hot falafel into the office. She fell for him instantly, before they had spoken or she knew his name. By the time she knew him a little and realised how conservative his values were, it was too late to back out. The gossip had started and the only way to stop it was to become engaged. Their marriage was a disaster, and eventually she was reduced to begging her husband not to beat her in front of their son.
Separated from him, she is offered the chance for a year-long professional exchange in the United States. It’s fascinating to go with her on her journey of discovery in New Hampshire as she tries out different types of freedom. She is frank about her own prejudices, like the moment she discovers her friend Naomi is Jewish. She is thrilled to get an American driver’s licence. On her return to Saudi Arabia the restrictions that had seemed set in stone before no longer seemed inevitable. And chief among them is the fatwa against women driving.
Manal and some friends start an online group, Women2Drive, which quickly attracts thousands of followers. A friend films her while she drives:
… we continued, speaking about women who pay as much as a third of their monthly salaries to hire a private driver. We talked about mothers who cannot drop their children at school when their husbands are away, about mothers who put their ten-year-old sons behind the wheel so they can leave their homes. I … headed toward the supermarket where I shopped for groceries each week – and where, previously, I could only go with a male driver. I let the steering wheel glide smoothly in my hands as I made the turn, looking out so I could make eye contact with any oncoming drivers. I smiled, and Wajeha asked, ‘Why are you smiling, Manal?’ For a second, I turned to face the iPhone in her hands, smiled even wider, and said, ‘Because I am driving.’
The YouTube clip of the drive is one of the top videos in the world with more than 700 000 views:
Someone living in Australia had posted in the comment section, ‘I have no clue why the hell everyone is watching this.’ But every Saudi knew exactly why he or she was watching. And the reaction was quickly overwhelming.
Overwhelmingly negative, there is a 20:80 like:dislike ratio to the YouTube clip.
Undaunted, al-Sharif takes to the roads again, with her brother in the passenger seat and this time she is picked up by the traffic police. They call in the dreaded religious police, then that night the secret police come to her house and she is taken to prison.
These events happened in 2011, and since then some things have improved. King Abdullah died in 2015 and his successor King Salman has issued a decree that will permit driving licences to be issued to women from mid-2018. So that battle is won, but much else remains unchanged for Saudi Arabian women.
All three siblings have since left the country, largely because of the fallout from al-Sharif’s actions. She now lives in Australia with her second husband and their child, her older boy of course having to remain behind with his father. But as becomes evident through reading this informative, multi-layered memoir, Saudi Arabia’s loss will surely be Australia’s gain.
Manal al-Sharif Daring to Drive: The young Saudi woman who stood up to a kingdom of men Simon and Schuster 2017 PB$32.99
Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.
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