It is 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.
While following the recent horrifying story of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, I realized that I knew very little about Saudi Arabia beyond the basics. The only book I already owned relevant to the country was Manal al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive, and that seemed as good a place to start as any.
One of the things I did know was that until June 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to forbid women from driving. It’s possible to know that and still be completely ignorant of how affecting it really was – how much it impacted the women’s lives, which remain carefully limited under religious and cultural strictures despite the ban’s recent lift. Obviously this limitation on mobility affected them greatly, but I think you can’t understand how much until you read this story, where so much of the life of a Saudi woman is presented in vivid, uncomfortable but eye-opening detail.
Manal al-Sharif was born poor in Mecca. Despite living in a holy city that attracts endless attention and Muslims on pilgrimage, they lived a difficult, dark life (she’s always emphasizing how dark their apartments were, her descriptions are incredibly evocative). Although her parents are complicated, troubling figures who regularly beat Manal and her siblings and, horrifyingly, allowed female genital mutilation to be performed on their daughters (which isn’t even the norm in Saudi Arabia, to add horrible insult to evil injury), they do make significant efforts for their children to have lives better than their own.
Manal seizes what opportunities she can, despite the loaded obstacle course typical for Saudi women just trying to exist. She earns a degree in computer science and eventually a coveted job with Aramco, an American-established oil company. Aramco has a gated compound operating under its own rules in the city of Dhahran. Despite a not-insignificant number of hurdles in beginning work and settling into life at Aramco, working and living there gives her a taste of what independent, self-sufficient life can be like. It’s also where she meets her first husband – piece of work, their relationship uncomfortably doomed from the start:
Our arguments were frequent and they often ended in my asking how it could be considered acceptable for him to work in Aramco, but not acceptable for a woman. His response was always “I am a man, and nothing brings shame to a man.”
Compare that to a passage where she recalls learning “what ‘becoming a woman’ meant socially: “Have some shame,” our nearly teenage selves were admonished. “You are women now!”
Manal often reveals the torment she’s faced, where every decision is weighted with massive consequences. Lucky enough to marry for love, it’s less great when he wants her to give up a job she enjoys and worked hard for, submit to wearing a niqab and traditional, conservative cultural confines for women. And she considers it, despite how far she’s come. She explains her reasoning and its basis so clearly that it’s painful to read her experiences and understand, completely, why it’s not easy to just choose independence and a progressive life. Sometimes even at the end of all her progress, she’s ultimately stymied by Saudi law, religious rules and bureaucracy. The frustration is palpable.
Just consider some of the hard, headachey but necessary everyday life things you do, like organizing housing, managing educational bureaucracy, traveling, getting government IDs, getting a job, negotiating apartment contracts, etc. Then imagine extra snares and tangles inherent in each of these if you’re a woman. Saudi women need approval from their mahram, a male guardian, often either their husband or father, to complete any basic bureaucratic or life functions. What do you do when he doesn’t approve? Or isn’t available, leading to scenarios like being unable to leave prison after a sentence is up because no man can sign for the release.
It’s staggering to think about, and Manal writes with such clarity about how she faced each potential stumbling block and creatively, cleverly, painstakingly overcame it. It’s exhausting at times just to consider, I can’t imagine living it. But thanks to her writing, I feel like I have some better understanding, at the very least.
At one point, she does a stint working for Aramco on the US East Coast, which was a significant phase in her life. It’s here that she gets a driver’s license, and experiences a kind of personal freedom that isn’t available to her, Americanized compound or not, in Saudi Arabia.
Everything eventually coalesces in the act that would land her in prison – getting behind the wheel of her own car and driving in the public streets outside the Aramco compound. She’d studied the legal codes and there was technically no prohibition against “driving while female”, the offense she was arrested for. It was a crime against tradition.
She illustrates, in incident after incident, what led to the frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction at the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia resulting in that risky decision to drive, film and post it to social media. Her time imprisoned was terrifying, especially knowing she was held illegally, unable to confer with her lawyer, and unaware when the ordeal would end. Even in this uncertain, harrowing environment, painfully separated from her son, she makes the best of it, recording the stories of her fellow prisoners and organizing help for them outside when she can. I’m in awe of this woman.
Some excerpts that especially moved me:
We were taught by male professors, though we never saw them face-to-face. Everything was done via closed-circuit television; we saw and heard the professors, who were sitting in a classroom in a separate building lecturing the male students, but they couldn’t see or hear us, so we were denied any chance to participate. As if that wasn’t enough of a disadvantage, the CCTV often crashed, and then we would simply miss the lecture. If we wanted to ask the professor a question, the only way to do so was by telephone, which was supervised by a female assistant who sat through the lecture with us…
Not only did I no longer constantly consult my father, I did some things without him even knowing … Now, for the first time in my life, I had the freedom to choose the color of my clothes and shoes, my hairstyle, even where I went (inside the campus). These choices, although simple, gave me the feeling that I had some say over my life. I had been conferred a degree of responsibility, I could trust myself. These were feelings that I had always been deprived of, though I hadn’t noticed the deprivation.
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. It was like opening a long-closed window into a dark room. That was the moment I rediscovered my face.
Beautifully written, heartbreaking but hopeful. Manal repeats the words “The rain begins with a single drop” often in explaining her choices despite the great personal cost she paid, and is still paying. She was right – it does and it did. 4.5/5
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
by Manal al-Sharif
published June 13, 2017 by Simon & Schuster