Dare to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

I have just read Manal Al Sharif’s book dare dare I’ve known it was in the works for a few years and I had expectations, as did many other Saudis. We debated and speculated about what she would mention. In my conversations with her, Manal dropped some hints about what she was writing about. However, the actual book is not what I expected. I was expecting it to be a more general narrative of what it’s like for Saudi women; a more geographically restricted version of Mona Eltahawys headscarves and hymens. I thought it could focus more on what happened in 2011 and its aftermath. In fact, the book is a frighteningly intimate close-up of Manal herself. With childlike honesty, Manal recounts what it was like growing up in poverty in Mecca and her volatile home environment as a child. She even talks about her botched circumcision and how the state school system of the time was able to radicalize her, like many others of our generation.

She starts the book with her arrest as a starting point and from there goes back in time to tell everything that made her the Saudi woman who dared to drive in 2011. She finally brings her biography back to her time in a Saudi prison and the inhumane conditions and forgotten women she witnessed inside. Finally, she ends the book with her mother’s death, her marriage, her new baby, and all of the obstacles she currently faces for taking up driving. I also appreciated some of the lighter subjects that came up, including how shocked she was that people in New Hampshire didn’t like it when it rained.

I enjoyed the weather. I hadn’t seen rain in three years before I arrived in New Hampshire and when it rained for the first time I was so excited. When Saudis see rain, our first instinct is to run outside. I was jumping up and down in the office shouting, “It’s raining, let’s go outside.” My colleagues looked at me like I was crazy. In Saudi Arabia we pray that God sends us the rain as a great mercy. In New Hampshire, people wished the rain would stop. I never stopped loving every rainy day.

Manal is famous for its aphorism The rain begins with a drop.

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

We honked the horn and I texted her that we were outside and she practically ran out the door. She looked very different from the day we met for coffee, and yet she made a statement. Her hair was neatly hidden under a black hijab but she wore a light pink abaya. Saudi women rarely wear anything other than black abayas in public. When I saw Waheja in pink I giggled and thought she was even more fearless than me. No doubt she figured if we got arrested at least she’d look smart.

One last thing I liked about Manal’s book is that it documents more evidence against a common misconception about the Saudi women’s driving ban. Many people believe that it is a misogynistic male construct aimed at women. In her confessional, Manal describes how many Saudi civilians helped and encouraged her, and the people who tried to discourage, stop and punish her were and are mostly pro-government or pro-government. The driving ban for women is imposed by the government and, like the religious police, can be maintained and lifted at will.

I won’t give more away, but I have to say that I loved the book. It was clearly written from the heart. I only knew Manal after she was arrested. I wrote about it then. Since then I’ve met and spoken to her a few times. I knew a little about her background but felt we had a lot in common as we were both educated, working Saudi women of the same age and also happened to be mothers. Since reading the book I have learned how different we are and it has reminded me how heterogeneous Saudi society is as a whole.

I only got to know female genital mutilation as an adult. I wasn’t circumcised and neither were my mother and grandmothers. Because Manal was born to a West Coast family and her mother was from North Africa, she was much more likely to be circumcised than the majority of Saudi women elsewhere in the country.

Unlike them, I never went through a fundamentalist phase. Even as a child I was immune, repelled by the similarities between the self-righteous certainty of the Christian evangelists in Kansas and the Muslim fundamentalists in Riyadh. Having never been a student in a Saudi public school, the closest I got to seeing what it was like in Saudi government schools was during the two semesters of teacher training I had to do at a local public school.

Despite our differences, I too witnessed in my corner of the Kingdom the radicalization of those around me in the 1990s. I was also exposed to the religious pamphlets that were freely distributed everywhere. I too managed to salvage a few, including one by Sheikh Mohammed Al Arefe on the global conspiracy to corrupt Saudi Muslim women.

Arifi booklet

Al Arefe booklet cover Scream in the college cafeteria

I was also struck by Manal’s insights into the contradictions between what was preached and what was practiced. I’ve listened to my cousins ​​and friends talk about how much they regret burning their family and wedding photo albums. I was lectured and bullied for my “liberal” ways, and my piety was questioned on many occasions at the time. I had schoolmates who demanded that I prove I could pray properly by reciting my prayers out loud. I had neighbors and even relatives who would forbid their daughters to see me because my father had a reputation for being a liberal. In reality, he’s about as liberal as Mad Men’s Don Draper. If I had known the conservative Manal of the time, it would be highly unlikely that we would have become friends. It was a dark time for everyone, whether or not they were indoctrinated by the fundamentalist rhetoric of the time.

You can buy dare dare direct from the publisher in hardcover, e-book or audio format by clicking here. Or you can order it from Amazon.