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Daring Saudi Women to Drive

While it is still illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif’s bravery has not been in vain.

Just two months after the United Nations elected Saudi Arabia into the newly established Commission on Women’s Rights, the long awaited memoir, Daring to Drive, by Saudi-born Manal al-Sharif was finally released. Al-Sharif details the extent to which women are subordinated by men on every level of Saudi society. Intertwined with it is a story of transformation — from a young devout Salafist to a champion of the women’s right to drive campaign and, finally, to a dissident in exile.

Al-Sharif first captured attention in May 2011 from a YouTube video of her driving through a thoroughfare of her occluded country. The video was uploaded later that night and by the next afternoon was met with a mixture of support from moderates and reprisal from votaries. There are no legal statutes forbidding women to drive, nor is it prohibited by sharia law. Rather, the ban is based on a fatwa issued by the late Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz in 1990. Few attempts have been made at defying the driving ban, but all have been subdued. Refusal to abide by Saudi orf, or tradition, results in arbitrary abuse and imprisonment, as was the case with Manal al-Sharif.

Her memoir starts with the night she was taken from her residence into an all-female prison days after the video became public. The author then begins the story of a young girl raised in a strictly religious family. If her younger self was told that before the age of 40 she would already have written a political coming-of-age memoir, she may have responded with incredulity. In her own words, the 38-year-old wrote: “I had never set out to be an activist.”

She may never have set out to be an activist, but throughout her memoir al-Sharif offers the reader many intimations that the woman she later evolved to be was not a product of mere coincidence. She was born in 1979, the same year of the Grand Mosque siege in Mecca. After Juhayman al-Otaybi’s two-week occupation of Islam’s holiest shrine came to an end, the ruling family’s relationship with Wahhabism began. Women stopped appearing on television. Imams began delivering their sermons on the radio. The young al-Sharif subsumed the radical teachings that she was given.

As the author enters adulthood, her faith begins to lose its fervency. She tells of the unsettling sense of how the words the imams sermonized conflicted with her actual experience. She enjoyed listening to music and reading news from the outside world on the internet. It all became untenable after the attacks of 9/11. While many were galvanized to have learned that the Western infidels were punished by the hands of their own compatriots, al-Sharif’s reaction was instead one of stunned horror. Here she writes:

“We had grown used to watching bloodshed, massacres, and destruction in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq: now, for the first time, we were seeing the same thing in America. As I watched thick plumes of smoke rise into the sky and saw the Twin Towers burn, my feelings were a mixture of shock and deep sorrow. The scene that etched itself in my memory more firmly than any other was seeing victims jumping from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. ‘This is madness,’ I said to myself, in tears.”

Readers will come to learn more of al-Sharif’s heroism, determination and moral conviction through the succeeding chapters. She entered an abusive marriage, gave birth to a son and went through a divorce. After being hired as one of the few female employees at Aramco, she took a company-paid trip to New England where finally she was able to see the United States without the slant of Saudi propaganda.

Her story ends with vindication, but also personal loss. Her imprisonment lasted only nine days, but the routine attacks from colleagues and strangers after al-Sharif’s release prompted her to leave the country with her second husband. She lost her personal hero, her mother, to breast cancer. After divorce, Saudi laws deny women full custody of their children. When she left, her first son stayed behind with her ex-husband.

Today, she has found safety in Sydney and has given birth to a second son. While it is still illegal for women to drive in her country, Manal al-Sharif’s bravery has not been in vain. Women continue to defy traditions so that freedoms for both sexes can eventually prosper in Saudi Arabia. If there is any hope, then it lies with rebels such as al-Sharif and her supporters. And if there is any small part that we can contribute, then it is to laud and support their efforts to enjoin freedoms that we so easily take for granted.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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