The Rain Began with a Single Drop

Book review: Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif
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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

Book Depository


35 thoughts on “The Rain Began with a Single Drop

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  1. Straight onto the wishlist this one goes, this is getting out of control now, you need a stint of mediocre books so I cant catch up on all this nonfiction! I had no idea that woman were forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabi until this year, the thought alone is crazy, especially when I think about how much more independence I gained when I started driving. I will definitely be reading this one! Thanks for the fab and enlightening review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol I’m so sorry! But I promise this one is totally worth it, this should be required reading. I was continually stunned with every little thing she comes up against just trying to get through a normal day. It’s so hard to wrap your head around what her life, and others’, are like.

      I knew they couldn’t drive but nothing beyond that, like of the other restrictions, discriminations, the whole mess of it. Wait til you read what their bs taxi system for women is like! It’s impossible to read this and not constantly be comparing to things in your own life, like you said the independence you gained with driving. I was doing it especially when she’s going through university and trying to find housing. So stressful for anyone and it’s magnified even more for them. I hope you read it, would love to hear your thoughts!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Damn nonfiction and their expensive prices!! But I just checked Scribd and the ebook is available so as long as I read it within 60 days, I’m okay, lol – easier said than done, and that means reading on my iPad, which is not fun, but I like a challenge. Either that or you’ll see in it my book haul at the end of November!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I need to check out scribd when I have a good month for it, it sounds like a treasure trove! I read on my ancient iPad too sometimes, mostly just if an ARC is only available as a PDF, and it’s a pain but as long as it’s not all the time it’s doable. I know nonfiction is pricey but this one I can recommend without any caveats, it’s really worth it. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! I was reading the standard publisher review and thinking I didn’t do it justice at all, there was just SO much going on in her story!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I read on a non-kindle ereader but I used the kindle iPad app when I had a trial of kindle unlimited. That was a strange feature indeed, sometimes I liked it when I might have breezed past something and other times I was left wondering 🤔 def more fun to find them on your own!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review! Your excepts have piqued my interest: the writing’s so lucid and moving, as well as informative. I’m hoping to read more literature from MENA countries next year, and I’ll have to add this to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t her writing extraordinary? There were so many excellent passages and the whole story was very informative. I didn’t touch on the half of it in the review. This one’s really a must read, especially if you’re interested in reading about the region!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was unimaginable, and this is really the tip of the iceberg, what I mentioned here. I also wonder how much has changed, I get the impression the younger new prince is making some small concessions because he felt some international pressure but he’s not going to make any radical changes. I’m glad you enjoyed the review, thank you! It’s really an excellent read.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. this was really a fabulous review Ren.
    this book really shows the curse of being women in Saudi in extra religious Saudi Arabia and its amazing how religious Imams who issued fatwas forbidden Women from driving have been forced to issue a new fatwa allowing women to drive.
    there is liberal side of me who wants Saudi Arabia also is important to all Muslims to be better than this but also there is very conservative side that also don’t want Saudi to be more liberal or westernized.
    thanks for your review again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it’s a complicated topic because of the historical and religious significance, especially of Mecca, but I was both moved and horrified, repeatedly, at what life as a woman is really like in Saudi Arabia. It’s one thing to be conservative, but the woman are treated seemingly less than second-class citizens. My heart broke for her and for what others are enduring too. I’m glad you liked the review, I think you’d appreciate the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember when as a teacher I met an Afghani mother who had come to Australia as a refugee from the Taliban. (This was before 9/11 when most people including me knew nothing about what was going on there). And she kept gently tossing her hair, and running her fingers through it, as if she still couldn’t quite believe that here she could wear her hair as free as she liked.
    It seems such a small thing, and yet it’s symbolic of freedoms we take for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s amazing. I think it’s so hard to grasp these things sometimes, small thing that we take for granted and that hold so much meaning for someone in different circumstances. I was hit by that over and over again in this book. It was very humbling and the author is so eloquent in how she explains herself.


    1. That’s such a great and positive way to look at it! I felt so humbled by her story but also a bit guilty at how often I’d railed about or been stymied by issues that weren’t half as hard for me as they were for her, and for others in similar circumstances. Much more useful would be to become more proactive with what we have!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading the book much as well. Manal Al-Sharif is quite something. When you compare the freedom, that she was given, to the freedom, that she has claimed and taken, wow, what a daring, courageous and inspiring woman she is! Unfortunately, MBS is only interested in the economical future of his country, which obviously secures his and his family’s economical future as well. Another man led by greed. So, as much as it comes in useful for Saudi Arabia’s future to lengthen women’s leashes, that much and not any further, will it be allowed. I can only recommend this book. If you’re looking for something enlightening, this is it!


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