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.

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