Standing up to a Kingdom of Men

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif

Imagine you are a woman in Saudi Arabia. Legally you are a minor, you must obtain a male guardian’s consent for even the most mundane activities, like opening a bank account or renting a house. Your father, husband, brother or son constitute a guardian. You cannot marry or divorce without the consent of your male guardian.

You cannot get a job or travel or even obtain a passport or an identification card with the consent of your guardian. If – for some reason – you are in prison, you cannot leave without the permission of your male guardian. Your guardian’s permission is required for certain medical – even life-threatening – treatments.

In addition, you cannot interact freely with men and you have to cover your body and hair when appearing in public. Α survey conducted by the Riyadh-based King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue, in 2014,  found that 86.5 per cent of the men polled believed that women are to blame for the rising cases involving molestation of females on the grounds they are seduced by women’s excessive make up (to clarify  – that means mascara and eyeliner).

And until now – for first time women will be allowed to obtain a driver’s license in June 2018-  you were not able to drive in Saudi Arabia.  You couldn’t drive to go to work, or pick up your children from the school, of visit family and friends.

Women in Saudi Arabia were fighting for years, to change that. One of these women is Manal al-Sharif. An evening, a few years back, Manal was on her way home from a doctor’s appointment.  The surgery was just 15 minutes drive from where she lived in Dhahran. She was alone, it was dark, and she was struggling to find a taxi. Men in cars, kept driving past jeering at, and harassing her. One man in a car followed her, until the terrified Manal threw a rock at his car. Then she burst into tears.

Manal had a driver’s licence, issued from the United Arab Emirates, she owned a car, she worked as an Information Security Consultant for Saudi Aramco. She was educated, respected by her colleagues, independent. But she wasn’t allowed to drive her own car .

“Once women can drive, all this evil will fall.”

That evening was the turning point for Manal. Enough was enough. She became an activist, an accidental activist. In 2011, she launched the Women2Drive campaign. She posted a video of herself driving, filmed by Wajeha Al-Huwaider a women’s rights activist and writer who repeatedly defied Saudi laws by posting on the internet, footage of herself driving. Manal was sent to prison.

The Rain Begins with a Single Drop

On Friday, June 17, 2011, about three dozen women drone in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Some drove for less than an hour around the streets of Riyadh, the capital. Others got behind the wheel in Jeddah ad Khobar and elsewhere. Many weren’t stopped, even when they passed police officers on the road. Those who were stopped were escorted home and sternly told not to drive again.

Daring to Drive reads like a thriller. It is a compelling and infuriating account of a woman’s life. It is about the magnitude of obstacles that women face in this kingdom of men; it is about their fight for dignity and freedom.  It also provides rare glimpses of life and especially the internal contradictions of a strict fundamentalist Islamic society.