One Saudi Woman’s Quest to Drive
Daring to Drive is a memoir with a deep message from Saudi female activists to their own countrywomen as well as the world: we are living in a repressive society but we are working to change the rules.
Saudi Arabia is a repressive monarchy ruled by the family of Saud. Although it contains within its geographic boundaries the holiest Islamic sites of Mecca and Medina, the kingdom doesn’t always conform to Islamic teachings pertaining to government. One such glaring contradiction is the rule against women drivers in Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive even though there is no specific law against it. The law is against getting a driver’s license and traveling without a guardian. Effectively this means Saudi women are restricted in their own lives, relying on male family members or strangers in taxis to take them wherever they need to go for personal, professional and emergency purposes.
Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi activist who was jailed for the crime of “driving while female” has published a memoir called Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. In it, she opens up a whole new world in terms of Saudi society and culture, descriptions that are bound to be shocking for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Manal grew up in poverty, amid physical and mental abuse by both parents and teachers. She dabbled in extremist ideologies in her teens, influenced like thousands of other youth by the fiery sermons of fundamentalist clerics and the brainwashing of the Saudi government. Later, she realized that extremism was actually limiting her personal freedoms, such as being able to attend university, travel without her father, or earn a living. As she turned back to moderate practice of her faith, she also turned towards activism.
On June 17, 2011, Manal made headlines by driving on the streets of Riyadh in the Women2Drive campaign. She uploaded a video of herself on Facebook, and other women followed suit by driving their cars as well. Some received negative attention, others admonishments by police. Manal documented these incidents, and most importantly her own story in her memoir. Later, she recorded a TED talk in which she shared her personal journey in an articulate and authentic manner.
Jasmine Bager, a Saudi-American journalist, shares her memories of growing up without the right to drive, and how ingrained it was to their cultural thinking in a Time Magazine article: “The lack of mobility was just something that we whined about at first, just like when we complained that our brothers could play ball while we had to help in the kitchen. Nobody really thought to speak up. Although we were happy to not need to worry about car maintenance, we were not pleased with needing to wait for a male adult to move around town.”
Manal’s actions shocked the nation. She was jailed in 2011 for more than a week, publicly shamed and harassed. The government and religious clerics started a smear campaign against her and she almost lost her job. Still, she persevered to bring rights to her female counterparts, hoping that one day driving a car will be as ordinary a thing to Saudi women as it is for women in other countries.
Jasmine Bager remembers: “Although that campaign did not succeed, it did get plenty of women to either drive or contemplate it. It shook people up and it started conversations. Women seemed ready to take action. Stories about women forced to skip work and children forced to miss school because the driver couldn’t take them were not merely rumors: they happened to us. Another common story was of a lone woman standing at her parked car, holding the car keys and her dying child—as no man was able to come in time to take her to the emergency room. Many of the fathers would leave to work shortly after sunrise, an hour (or several) before children would need to be at school.”
Manal is not the lone voice advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive. In fact, her activism is in the center of a growing movement that often goes unheard in Western media. Much before June 17, 2011, a group of forty-seven women drove in protest on Nov. 6, 1990, also in Riyadh until they were stopped by police. The same process of jail, public shaming and harassment continued. Manal and Jasmine, along with millions of other Saudis, grew up hearing of forty-seven immoral women bent on corrupting Saudi society. The actions of these pioneers were almost erased by the government until Manal arrived on the scene.
But those initial protesters prodded the nation into analyzing itself. “I think it was worth it, because we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it,” Aisha al-Mana, one of the original forty-seven women, told NPR. Manal al-Sharif explained in her memoir that she learned important lessons from that 1990 protest when she created her own campaign in 2011. Other women followed in these footsteps: a high-profile campaign on October 26, 2013, as well as activist Loujain Al-Hathloul arrested in 2014 for 73 days for her drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
Daring to Drive is a memoir with a deep message from Saudi female activists to their own countrywomen as well as the world: we are living in a repressive society but we are working to change the rules. Manal al-Sharif dedicates her book to her two sons, telling them to always “question the rules, not yourself.”
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