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Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

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I just read Manal Al Sharif’s book Daring to Drive. I knew that it was in the works for a few years and I had expectations and so did many other Saudis. We discussed and speculated what she’ll mention. In my conversations with her, Manal dropped some hints about what she’s writing about. However, the actual book is nothing like I anticipated. I expected that it would be a more general narrative on what it’s like for Saudi women; a more geographically parochial version of Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens. I thought it might focus more on what happened in 2011 and its aftermath. In actuality, the book is a shockingly intimate close-up examination of Manal herself. With childlike sincerity, Manal tells what it’s like growing up poor in Makkah and her volatile childhood home environment. She even recounts her botched circumcision and how the governmental school system at the time was able to radicalize her as it did with many others of our generation. She begins the book with her arrest as a starting point and from there goes back in time to explain everything that made her the Saudi woman who dared to drive in 2011. She eventually brings it back to her time in a Saudi prison and the inhumane conditions and forgotten women inside. Finally, she ends the book with her mother’s passing away, her marriage, new baby and all the obstacles that she currently faces because she dared to drive. I also appreciated some of the lighter topics that came up including how shocked she was that people in New Hampshire didn’t like it when it rains.

I enjoyed the weather. I had not seen rain for three years before I arrived in New Hampshire, and the first time it rained, I was so excited. When Saudis see rain, our first impulse is to run outside. I jumped up and down in the office, yelling “It’s raining, let’s go outside.” My co-workers looked at me as if I were crazy. In Saudi Arabia, we pray for God to send us the rain as a great mercy. In New Hampshire, people wished for the rain to go away. I never stopped loving each rainy day.

Manal is famous for her aphorism the rain starts with a drop.

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I loved reading about Manal’s two encounters with Wajeha Al Huwaider. I’ve never met her, but as a pioneer of women’s rights in Saudi, she’s had an enormous influence on many of us.

We honked the horn and I texted her that we were out front, and she practically ran out the door. She looked very different from the day we had met for coffee, and yet she still made a statement. Her hair was neatly concealed beneath a black hijab, but she had on bright pink abaya. Saudi women rarely wear anything but black abayas in public. When I saw Waheja in pink, I giggled, thinking that she was even more fearless than me. No doubt, she was thinking that if we got arrested, at least she’d look stylish.

One last thing I liked about Manal’s book is that it is more evidence against a common misconception about the Saudi ban on women driving. Many people believe that it’s a misogynistic social construct of men against women. Throughout Manal’s book, many Saudi civilian men helped and encouraged her, and the people who attempted to discourage, stop and punish her were and are mainly governmental and government affiliated. The ban on women driving is imposed by the government and, just like with the religious police, can be kept and removed ad libitum.

I won’t give any more away, but I have to say that I loved the book. It was written from the heart. I only knew of Manal when she was arrested. I wrote about it at the time. Since then, I’ve met and talked with her a few times. I knew a little bit of her background but still considered that we had a lot in common since both of us are educated professional Saudi women of the same age and who also happen to be mothers. Since reading the book, I learned how different we are and it has made me think of how heterogeneous Saudi society at large is. FGM was something I only heard of as an adult. I wasn’t circumcised, and neither was my mother or my grandmothers. The fact that Manal was born to a family on the West coast and that her mother is from North Africa made it more likely for her to be circumcised than for the majority of Saudi women in the rest of the country. Unlike her, I’ve never had a fundamentalist phase. Even as a child I was immune because I was repulsed by the similarities I saw between the self-righteousness and certainty of both Kansas evangelists and Riyadh Muslim fundamentalists. And I’ve never been a student at a public school. The closest I got to see what it’s like at governmental schools is the two semesters of teacher training that I had to undergo at a public school. Despite our differences, I too witnessed the 1990s radicalization of people around me. I also was exposed to the religious pamphlets that were distributed for free everywhere, and I also saved some including one by sheikh Mohammed Al Arefe about the global conspiracy to corrupt Saudi Muslim women.

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Cover of Al Arefe’s booklet Scream at the University Cafeteria

I also was affected by the contradictions between what was preached and what was practiced. I’ve heard my cousins and friends talking about how much they regretted burning their family and wedding photos. I’ve been lectured and bullied for my “liberal” ways, and my piety was doubted on many occasions back then. I’ve had school classmates demand that I prove I knew how to pray properly by reciting my prayers aloud. I’ve had neighbors and even relatives ban their daughters from socializing with me because my father had a reputation of being a liberal. In reality, he’s about as liberal as Mad Men’s Don Draper. If I had known the conservative Manal of back then, it’s highly unlikely that we would have been friends. It was a dark time for everyone regardless of whether or not they were indoctrinated by the fundamentalist rhetoric of that era.

 

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