All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Daring To Drive by Manal al-Sharif

on July 5, 2017

Daring To Drive
Manal al-Sharif
Simon & Schuster AUS
2017, 283p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher}:

Daring To Drive is a visceral coming-of-age tale. Best known for her campaign work for women’s rights, including the 2011 Women2Drive campaign, this is Manal al-Sharif’s fiercely intimate memoir about the making of an accidental activist.

Born in Mecca in 1979, the year strict fundamentalism took hold in Saudi Arabia, Manal was raised to be religiously conservative. As a young girl she would burn her brother’s boy band CD’s in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But as she grew older, the differences in the way she and the men in her life were treated became too much to bear. Her personal rebellion began the day she got behind the wheel of a car: an act that ultimate led to her arrest and imprisonment.

Daring To Drive is an account of Manal al-Sharif’s fight for equality in an unequal society. It is also a celebration of resilience, the power of education and the strength of female solidarity in the face of hardship. 

This is a powerful book.

Manal al-Sharif and I are very close in age, she was born only three years before I was. Growing up on opposite sides of the world, our lives couldn’t have been more different. al-Sharif shares brutally frank realities of being a girl growing up in a time when fundamentalism was on the rise in Saudi Arabia. She talks of the struggle to go to school and get an education, the casual domestic violence that is ingrained in the culture, the beatings received by not only parents but also school teachers. At around 12 or 13 she was no longer allowed to see, speak to or even be in the presence of boys – even her own cousins. They vanished from her life and as she laments, ‘I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye’. There’s a horrific account of a circumcision that left her permanently disfigured and honestly, the sheer thought of that horror made my stomach drop.

al-Sharif is refreshingly honest about her own time as a devout and very conservative Muslim during her teen years and how some of that was ripped away from her during her attendance at a university an hour away from her home. Mecca seems quite strict whereas other areas of Saudi Arabia did not seem to enforce quite the same level of compliance. It’s a slow reveal for her, as she examines the way women are treated, the caveats placed upon them, versus the never ending freedom of men. She is stifled almost every way she turns, especially when she graduates university and begins working for a large company, which generally only employs women in admin-style roles. There are so many difficulties – she isn’t allowed on the company bus to work, because it’s for men only. There’s no housing for women and yet she can’t sign her own apartment because she needs her guardian (a man, obviously) to do it for her. The idea of not being able to do anything without a man present is so foreign to me – open a bank account, go to the shops, enroll my children in school, board a bus/train/etc. al-Sharif had to move some distance away from her family in order to take the job, which places her in an even harder situation and not only that but her parents have to lie about her living away on her own because they’ll be judged by their peers for allowing her to do such a thing as well.

Saudi women don’t drive, everyone knows that. But I have to admit, I didn’t think until I read this book about the logistics of an entire sex not being able to drive. Men are often away at work, so if women want to go anywhere they need to call a taxi or employ a driver, if they are wealthy enough. That comes with a whole list of dangers on its own and al-Sharif mentions that if they found clean taxis with respectful drivers, they would all share his number. But there are plenty of times where you can’t find someone to take you, as happened to al-Sharif at night, placing her in a situation where she was very frightened for her safety. And there’s so much women-blaming rhetoric in Saudi Arabia, it’s virtually impossible for a woman to complain about anything, because it will always be turned around to be their fault – out unchaperoned, not covered, not obeying their husband/father/guardian/etc.  I remember hearing about the campaign for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, remember it making the news. Manal al-Sharif was part of the driving force behind that campaign and filmed herself (and uploaded it to YouTube) driving with her face not covered by a niqab. For that she was pulled over, interrogated for hours, finally released and then taken from her home in the early hours of the morning and incarcerated in a women’s prison for “driving while female” which isn’t even a thing. As she painstakingly points out many times, the actual law makes no reference to the sex of any driver and al-Sharif was in possession of an international license (valid in Saudi). She had intended to apply for a Saudi license, having ascertained that the actual law didn’t prevent her from doing so. She was only breaking a custom, something that shouldn’t have been punishable with jail. It caused a worldwide storm, even reaching future presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.

The book details the threats and accusations she received for her actions, the very least of which were being shunned by people she knew, accused of being a whore, a bad Muslim, it went on and on. In fact it’s probably played down in the book in terms of sheer numbers. I did find it amusing that she highlighted a comment from an Australian on the YouTube video “she’s just driving, I don’t even know why anyone is watching this”. Indeed. She’s just driving. Something we take for granted here every day. That when you turn 16 or whatever, you can go and get your L’s and learn to drive and at 17 or 18 depending on where you live, bam, you can get your license and drive on your own. Anywhere you want to go. It’s probably inconceivable to many a western teen that there are still places where you can’t drive if you’re a woman. It’s just not done.

It’s books like this that make me wish I had enough political knowledge to converse about the ins and outs of places, rules, religions etc but I don’t. This book taught me a lot though, about Saudi Arabian history, Islamic history, the rise of fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, the culture and general feel of places like Mecca and Jeddah as well as the contrast (in some ways) to the compound where Manal al-Sharif worked as an adult. I wish I had more words to better describe how amazing this book is, honest and real it is, how unflinching. al-Sharif describes herself as an unintentional activist and probably wouldn’t consider herself to be brave but I found her so. It’s hard to stand up against so many and be a lone voice.


Book #116 of 2017



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