by Fran Withrow
When I go on a trip, I much prefer someone else drive. But at least I have a choice about getting behind the wheel. Some women don’t have that option, and that is the focus of “Daring to Drive,” Manal al-Sharif’s brave account of bucking Saudi Arabia’s moral code by deciding to drive a car.
Al-Sharif is one of many Saudi women who, through the years, have fought for more freedoms in their beloved country, including the freedom to drive.
It’s been a long time coming. As far back as 1990, forty-seven courageous Saudi women defied the ban on women driving. They all suffered the consequences of this civil disobedience for the rest of their lives. Job loss, harassment and humiliation dogged them repeatedly. And despite their defiant act, nothing changed.
Fast forward about 15 years. Al-Sharif was a radical Islamist who, as an adult, did a complete about-face to become a women’s rights activist. Her account of how this remarkable transformation came about is informative and enlightening.
The newly awakened al-Sharif went to college and then was offered a coveted job at Aramco, Saudia Arabia’s oil company. She needed a place to live, but women could not rent an apartment by themselves. She needed to get to work, but could not drive and was not permitted to use the male-only company transportation. I’m not sure I would have her fortitude in the face of so many obstacles. Yet Al-Sharif ingeniously solved every problem, obtained her job, and became a successful employee.
In 2009, as part of a professional exchange program, al-Sharif went to New Hampshire, an eye-opening experience and a place where she learned to drive at last. When she returned to Saudi Arabia, she bought a car. Yet she could not legally drive it in her own country.
Frustrated by the relentless, unending ways Saudi Arabia stifles women, and wanting to make a difference for women everywhere, al-Sharif made a daring decision.
She would drive her car around the city.
She did so in 2011, as a friend sat beside her and taped the excursion, and the ensuing YouTube video went viral. She went to jail for “driving while female,” and her description of the conditions for imprisoned Saudi women are horrifying. Disappointingly, nothing changed. Most people would have given up, but not al-Sharif. She told herself, “The rain begins with a single drop,” and never lost hope.
I discovered this book just as the news came out that Saudi Arabia plans to allow women to drive sometime next year, seven years after al-Sharif dared to drive and 28 years after the first group of women got behind the wheel. What an incredible achievement at last for these dedicated activists.
If you are in the mood for a memoir about overcoming oppression, about a woman’s transformation, and about the sacrifices and risks people take to stand up for freedom, look no further.
And be grateful next time you choose to drive.
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
By Manal Al-Sharif
Simon and Schuster