The Saudi woman who dared to drive

by Alison McCulloch / 27 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Saudi

Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif paid a high price for breaking the law by “driving while female”. 

Being arrested and jailed for “driving while female” is the least of the trials Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif has faced in her 38 years. But it’s what she made international headlines for in 2011, so it’s the hook for this powerful story of resistance.

The cruelties and injustices she recounts in these pages are almost too many and too indescribable to absorb, from a botched circumcision as a child that left her with lifelong deformities, and frequent beatings at home and school, to the slew of rules and restrictions that make life as a woman in this “kingdom of men” all but impossible.

Al-Sharif’s journey begins in Mecca amid poverty and religious conservativism that she initially embraced with zeal. “I started covering myself with abayas [robes] and niqabs [face garments] before it was even required,” she writes. “For years, I melted my brother’s pop-music cassette tapes in the oven because in fundamentalist Islam, music is considered haram, meaning forbidden.” She refused to travel to Egypt with her mother to visit relatives because “Egypt was a sinful country where women were not veiled, people went to the movies and men and women mixed together”, and one day she made a bonfire of her mother’s magazines for fear “the presence of photographs in the home would prevent the entry of angels”.

She even remembers hearing about an earlier driving protest, in 1990, and feeling scorn for the 47 women who took part, denounced at the time as “immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society”.

Manal al-Sharif. Photo/Getty Images

Many things played a part in al-Sharif’s metamorphosis: a university education, a job at the Saudi oil company Aramco, a work exchange to the US (where she got her first driver’s licence), the 9/11 attacks and the everyday exhaustion of navigating the duties and prohibitions imposed on women. “It was difficult not to feel as if every rule had been invented to ensure that I would fail.”

For her driving protest, al-Sharif was jailed, then freed after nine days following her father’s direct appeal to the king. But the cost was much higher than her time behind bars: she lost her job and was forced to move abroad, losing access to her son from her first marriage. She now lives in Australia with her second husband and their child, her optimism and hope for change in her homeland still surprisingly undimmed.

DARING TO DRIVE: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster, $32.99)

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


A big science investment - but where’s the transparency?
99199 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z Tech

A big science investment - but where’s the transpa…

by Peter Griffin

An extra $420m is being pumped into the National Science Challenges - but the reasoning behind the increased investment won't be released.

Read more
NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – and a wild past
99182 2018-11-16 13:32:58Z Music

NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – an…

by Donna Chisholm

We revisit this profile on award-winning guitarist Gray Bartlett, who's just released a new album, Platinum!

Read more
Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on what his creation has become
99178 2018-11-16 13:13:08Z Tech

Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on …

by Peter Griffin

"We were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn't even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it," says Vint Cerf.

Read more
Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of Mary Queen of Scots
99165 2018-11-16 10:51:28Z Win

Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of …

by The Listener

Starring Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart.

Read more
Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct
99155 2018-11-16 09:33:23Z Auckland Eats

Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct

by Alex Blackwood

North Shore residents will have plenty to choose from at Goodside.

Read more
The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more