Friday, January 12, 2018

Review: Get behind the wheel to take charge of your life

Review of: Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening
Author: Manal al-Sharif
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A 
First, there was a traffic ticket. Then at 2 a.m., religious police began pounding on her door. Finally, she was taken to prison. The charge against her: “driving while female.”
When women in Saudi Arabia are “officially” allowed to drive, starting June 23 of this year, will Manal al-Sharif be among them? She was, she writes in her 2017 memoir, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, not normally a daring person.

She had come of age during the Saudi kingdom’s embrace of a radical version of Islam in the late 1970’s, indoctrinated to believe “that the rest of the world, and even less observant parts of the Muslim world, were conspiring against our true Islam. . . And I was increasingly determined to life my life according to those principles.” Including the restriction against allowing women to drive.

She was taught – and believed, she writes – that a 1990 protest by women drivers in Saudi Arabia was a symptom of un-Islamic attitudes. That they were the reason her generation was not allowed to drive.
So how, more than 20 years later, did Manal al-Sharif become a catalyst for a women’s movement? How did she end up imprisoned in 2011 for the crime of “driving while female”? Why does she now refer to the 1990 women drivers as her “idols”?
The tipping point, she writes, occurred one night when, unable to find a professional driver following a doctor’s appointment, she was accosted repeatedly and stalked while walking home. 
Finally reaching her house, she posted her determination to drive on her next birthday. One friend called her a “trouble-maker.” Her reply: “‘no, history-maker.’ But even then, I didn’t believe myself. I thought I was bluffing.”
Despite her early adherence to religious rules was also the daughter of a woman who was determined for her children to have the education she was denied, an insistence that prompted Manal as well as her siblings to finish college and find jobs. Employed as an information technologist, Manal would live and work within the compound of the national petroleum company, Aramco, “a green oasis, sitting up high on a hill. . . (with) grassy parks, lakes and ponds, and walking trails.” And women who drove. But only within Aramco’s charmed confines.
The divorced mother of a young son, Manal bought a car to use within the grounds, took driving lessons from her younger brother, and after a professional exchange program in the United States, acquired a driver’s license from the state of Massachusetts. Manal would live and work in a bubble in which many of the usual restrictions of Saudi life – including those on driving -- didn’t apply.
But those outside the Aramco bubble, for those who needed to leave its protection for whatever reason, the restrictions returned in full force. And Manal would learn that after she defied those restrictions (which she argues were cultural rather than legal) by driving in the city outside Aramco, by uploading video to YouTube of her driving and chatting with a woman friend, even Aramco’s walls could not protect her.
After her release from prison (following her father’s petition to then-King Abdullah) she and her family were the subject of so much harassment that she finally quit her job, eventually remarrying and moving to Dubai.
But she kept the Saudi license plate on her car “because someday, I want to drive my car across the border into my homeland,” and recounts a Saudi proverb: “the rain begins with a single drop.”

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