Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
by Manal al-Sharif
Perhaps no other prohibition or decree forced upon women has been as discussed, analyzed, examined or reviled by the entire world as the ban on female driving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly, the regulation exists to protect women, or at least this is what they are frequently told. However, navigating the demands of daily life can be challenging to say the least, when denied the freedom of mobility and, when considering other strictures enforced in women’s lives or extant in Saudi society—dearth of public transport, proscription on being in the company of unrelated males, lack of willing/able family drivers or funding for an official one—seemingly impossible.
Such was the circumstance for Manal al-Sharif, who previously had worked her way out of the slums of Mecca to become a computer scientist for Saudi Aramco, dodging and climbing over, around, under and through each of the many obstacles appearing before her as she made her way through a degree program and, later, job offer that entailed her shift to a city in the Eastern Province (EP) where she didn’t even know anyone. In Daring to Drive she lays out the elements of plotting strategies, mapping out her daily routines in meticulous manner most of us could never imagine, just to make her way through movement of the day.
Saudi women summoned in defiance of the ban are charged with “driving while female,” possibly experiencing further isolation in that Saudia is the only country where such a ban exists. Consider al-Sharif’s surprise when she learns the restriction is not even based in any actual law—upon conducting her own research she finds nothing in either statutes or Koran to support it. It is rooted only in tradition.
Al-Sharif opens her memoir with a rundown of the latter portion of her encounter with police at her house the night she is ticketed for driving while female. From there she takes us to her childhood home amongst assorted relatives and neighborhood personalities with a chronic tendency toward being mean to each other. I lost count of the beatings she received from her family members, though recall with painful clarity the one following an injury her sister suffers that involved horseplay, a broom and the roof of her mouth. Al-Sharif tells this and other stories with a matter-of-factness that stings a little, not because child abuse or even lower-level corporal punishment doesn’t exist in our own country, and not just for its frequency in hers. I thought I isolated at one point that it was because the voice she presented is so accepting of it, unquestioning, even as the adult Manal telling the story. I found it disturbing, while at the same time privileged to be invited so deeply into the family psyche and all its attendant baggage and vulnerabilities. One must maintain a balance, sitting up straight and listening respectfully without falling too far into whoa, sh**.
As her years move forward we do see the child Manal’s thinking process grow from a talent for sneaking what we would call average childhood pleasures into her existence to outrageous acts borne of religious fervor to determination to claim the education her mother had plotted her entire life to steer her toward. Her experience and innate savvy enables her to navigate her way through the challenges of accepting a position in the EP on the other side of the country, which entails her arriving on her first day of work knowing she had no idea where she would sleep that night.
Soon after this I began to realize another voice had emerged, moreover that al-Sharif’s reflection of her own growing maturity and widening of her field of vision—in the landscape of her persona—is evident in her own meta-awareness. Her always-fluid prose ripples with it and at last I realized that her style itself is one of evolution, not merely the story within it. The connection it embodies is so powerful, even amongst experiences many in her audience don’t share, not only owing to common humanity and empathic structure, but also a bond that leaps to life within us as she celebrates even small victories. Particularly for Westerners currently witnessing the throes of a feminism that marginalizes dissenting women and hypocritically ignores abuse of women in other countries, it conveys a true victory, an actual achievement of honest liberalism that only the most imprisoned might reject.
Al-Sharif also surprised me in another manner. As I read, I sometimes lamented what I thought was the barrage of negativity coming from events depicted in her story. I tend to be wary of books that either whitewash oppressive societies or portray them as if there is not a redeeming characteristic to be found. I didn’t have a stake in whether Saudia lived up to the stereotypes attached to it or not—though my Middle Eastern reading tends mostly to focus on Iran, I thought this might be a great opportunity to branch out a bit, and was concerned with disappointment via monotony or agenda. Here she tells us bitter truths that act to veil much of what we later discover to be the seedlings of her subsequent strength. Actually, this characteristic exhibits itself early on; we just don’t recognize it, and at times it doesn’t recognize itself as it transitions through a society severely affected by radicalization and women contributing to their own oppression. Amidst all these we also see the joy of her drawing; a sister, who like sisters anywhere, sneaks off to see a boy; a beloved Barbie doll; her parents’ efforts to shield their children from discrimination; trips to Egypt and—that universal uniter—fabulous feasts.
It is to al-Sharif’s credit as a writer when I say my realization of further technique within her prose approached me silently, like the new day dawning, within which a watcher might be scrupulously keeping track, though unable to determine when or where the first ray hits. Such is her theme of awakening, reflected in the memoir’s title, the tale of her growing awareness itself, and the manner in which her words open up, blooming with the nourishment of the light, after which readers realize the seeds of activism sprung up, and those who leap to her support as her role flowers to life.
Women find their own agency when, like men, they are free to do and to fail. Yes, of course, some failures entail tragedies not easily brushed aside, but most of the time they consist of lessons learned, small steps in a process of flowering the spirit that cannot occur without balance in a life of growth that takes us up to the sun, but also importantly, particularly in a harsh desert land, oftentimes with the rain. This, too, brings its own nourishment in those failures, and it is fitting that al-Sharif’s own mother, who successfully fought so hard for her children to escape poverty and achieve a full education, spoke of rain and small steps: “The rain begins with a single drop.”
The agency is there; one must sometimes first find the balance of nourishment to achieve it.
Daring to Drive is a fairly fast read, though not to be confused with rapidly-consumed books of lesser integrity. Within these pages al-Sharif packs much more than her own tale; it is almost as if she tells the story of mankind coming into itself as we awaken to a new world of possibility and fresh opportunity to go faster than we had been—literally and figuratively—knowing some of the obstacles others before had faced. As readers turn the pages, the world outside their peripheral vision falls away, dinners burn, the evening tiptoes quietly by, the metro stops closest to work are forgotten. Though al-Sharif refers to herself as an “accidental activist,” if this is the kind of work she produces, it would be to our benefit if she keeps at it on purpose.
At this writing it has been announced that Saudi women will,
by royal order, be entitled to drive by June 24, 2018.