Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening by Manal Al-Sharif
Published by Simon Schuster Audio
Publication date: June 13, 2017
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Debut, Memoir, Non-fiction
Your Local Book Store, Amazon
If I had to sum up Manal al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive in one sentence it would be: Saudi Arabia is a country that despises women. I didn’t know this. Somehow, I thought it was one of the more enlightened Middle Eastern countries but after listening to Manal’s story of lifelong oppression for no other reason than being female, I realize how wrong I was. Ostensibly, the book follows her attempt to get the cultural ban against women driving lifted in Saudi Arabia, but it goes far deeper than that. It’s a harrowing story that needs to be heard.
Manal was born and raised in Mecca, which is like living in Vatican City—it follows the strictest tenets of the country’s religion. However, all of Saudi Arabia adheres to a version of Islam, Salafism, that is considered extremist by most other Muslims. It is one of only two countries in the world to officially embrace this sect. For Manal, this means her childhood was comprised of genital mutilation when she was 8-years-old, not being allowed to go outside to play, and limited access to school (a rundown building with sealed, papered over windows, and locked access doors). All to protect her from the evil thoughts and deeds she would stir in men with any hint of her femininity. Forget men being responsible for their own actions—the concept doesn’t exist in the Saudi kingdom.
As a teenager Manal bought into the doctrines and was a radical herself. It’s only when she got to college (her mother believed in educating her daughters even though it was not customary) that she became aware of the world around her. After graduating she got a job with Aramco, the national oil company and left home to live in their suburban compound. Here the exposure to Western ideas juxtaposed against her countrymen’s stifling behavior (being called a slut for talking to a man at work) started a shift in Manal. She began to question Why? The necessities of adult life meant needing to drive but it is forbidden for women. There was no law, just custom, punishable by the religious police.
Things come to a head when, in 2011, Manal organized a day of driving for Saudi women. Shortly before the event she was arrested and put in prison. Her social media savvy and connections meant the news of her arrest went global and pressure was put on the Saudis to release her. She was, but the protest never happened and the resulting harassment means she no longer lives in Saudi Arabia.
For those of us in the Western world, as much as we may chafe against the inequality between men and women, Daring to Drive will still be shocking. In Saudi Arabia women are without an identity. Unmarried girls can’t talk in public, their name is never used—they are only referred to as daughter of their father. At every stage of life, they need a man as “guardian” no matter how that man abuses them or how old they are. It’s almost impossible to believe in a place where women truly have no value, except for bearing and raising children. Where they have no name, their existence is kept out of sight, their faces and bodies covered, their voices unheard. Manal’s bravery in fighting against this world is staggering, its implications more than we can understand, but Daring to Drive is not about a woman as victim, it’s about woman as warrior.