When it comes to Western audiences and Eastern women, there is a long tradition of willful ignorance, fetishization, and condescension. In the case of Arab and Muslim women, outsiders receive a steady diet of images of cloaked, silent figures, rendered somehow hypersexualized and infantilized at once. These depictions also tend to ignore individual agency, portraying these women as voiceless victims of Islam and totalitarian regimes, woefully deprived of Western-style feminism. Books and articles claiming to explain or uncover these so-called realities are always sure to sell well, but most fail to give adequate nuance to the lives and aspirations of the women they describe.
I was, as such, very wary when an advanced copy of Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif’s new book, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening arrived at my front door. A former resident of Saudi myself, I already knew and respected the story of al-Sharif’s activism, but a glance at the cover put me off. The title seemed too strategic. If there is one thing Westerners know about women’s rights in Saudi, it is the so-called ban on female drivers. I expected the book to be a repackaging of this tired narrative, marketed to Western audiences whose feelings about Saudi women are already predetermined. The book’s blurbs seemed to confirm this expectation, touting the all-too-familiar promise of a “rare glimpse” into the dark world of Arab women.
Even so, I dutifully cracked open the book. What I found inside challenged my expectations – and, I believe, will also challenge the assumptions Western readers have about Arab and Muslim women. al-Sharif’s book does not conform to the narrative of victimhood, nor does it feed into Western attitudes of superiority, by blindly disparaging Islam or Saudi culture. Her critique of Saudi society is cutting, but clearly driven by a desire to create change. al-Sharif points to the many Saudi women already engaged in this struggle, and writes with a frankness largely free of the sensationalism Western readers (and publishers) so often crave. And while the stories of al-Sharif’s defiant activism and eventual arrest provide a dramatic frame to the memoir, these are perhaps the least important parts of Daring to Drive. It is what happens in between that makes this an important read for non-Saudis.
Importantly, al-Sharif does not reduce her experience of being a woman in Saudi Arabia to the single issue of driving. Instead, she delves into many of less-visible struggles faced by Saudi women, as well as more universal themes of poverty and disenfranchisement. Beginning with the third chapter, al-Sharif describes, with unflinching detail, her difficult upbringing in a poor district of Mecca. She refuses to whitewash her experiences of lifelong domestic abuse, a pervasive but seldom-addressed issue that was only criminalized in Saudi Arabia in 2013. By recounting the beatings she experienced at the hands of her parents, teachers, siblings, and later, her husband—and how she learned to occasionally return the blows—al-Sharif highlights a cycle of brutality that remains a major social problem in the region.
The most agonizing passage of the book is perhaps the story of al-Sharif’s “circumcision,” which was performed despite her screaming protests and under the threatening watch of her family. Rather than waxing polemical about this contentious issue, she allows the gruesome facts to tell her story. She bled for days after the procedure and remained disfigured from the cutting, adding her marred clitoris to the litany of scars she now bears. al-Sharif rightfully points out that the practice is fairly rare in Saudi Arabia, arguing that it is rooted in “social customs and scientifically unproven beliefs” rather than mainstream Islam. Yet, the incidence of such cases has recently risen in the Kingdom, making al-Sharif’s willingness to address the topic both brave and important.
al-Sharif also discusses how shame functions as a form of social control over women. She describes the insidious ways in which women’s oppression is moralized through countless sermons, schoolbooks, and familial norms. Relating a lecture she heard as a teenager, al-Sharif recounts:
[Preachers] emphasized the need for women’s complete subordination to their husbands…as one Saudi sheikh said during a lecture, “if your husband has an injury filled with pus, and you lick this pus from his wound, this is still less than what he can rightfully expect.” I comforted myself with the promise that these arduous duties would pave my way to paradise.
al-Sharif’s abusive upbringing and constant exposure to these narrow-minded teachings initially led her down a very conservative road. In the book, she speaks candidly of her self-described “radicalization” as a teen, a period in which she dedicated herself to denouncing the trappings of Western decadence. Driven by a fear of eternal damnation, she policed her brother for listening to music, voluntarily adopted the niqab, and berated her sister for covertly communicating with boys. This is an important point for Western readers to understand: al-Sharif’s ultimate act of rebellion was grounded in her experience with an ideology that emphasized her inferiority. For those who look with disdain or bewilderment at the apparently slow progress of women’s rights in Saudi, this insight is crucial.
Unlike typical coverage of the Kingdom, Daring to Drive also provides readers with a primer on the socio-economic realities of the country’s working class. The broad experience of poverty in the Kingdom is key to understanding the patronage relationship between the Saudi population and the ruling class, as well as the ongoing subjugation of women and poorer Saudis.
Amidst all its criticism of Saudi society, Daring to Drive features some bright moments, which readers should savor. This includes al-Sharif’s description of annual Eid celebrations, her love of drawing, her fleeting friendships, and her determination to attend college. These understated details are significant as they displace the clichés that so often define Western-published memoirs of Arab women.
Significant, too, is al-Sharif’s profound devotion to her son, Aboudi. After a tumultuous divorce, al-Sharif doggedly took on Saudi’s unfair custody laws and discriminatory housing policies to preserve her place in Aboudi’s life. Yet, her willingness, at times, to separate from her child to focus on career or political goals is another profoundly radical act. In traveling and working as a single mother, al-Sharif defies the pervasive belief, in Saudi Arabia as well as the West, that women should prioritize marriage and motherhood, above all else.
Amidst all this rich and complex narrative detail, al-Sharif’s decision to sit behind the wheel of a car is hardly the point of Daring to Drive. It is certainly not the part of her story Western audiences need to hear the most. As readers learn about the compounding forces of poverty, abuse, inferior education, and legal discrimination that have so defined al-Sharif’s experience, they will gain an appreciation for the resilience and daily struggles of many Saudi women.
This insight ought to temper frequent disparagement about the supposed complacency of women in Saudi Arabia. For many women, it remains an incredible act of defiance to assert their most basic rights to education, safety, or employment. And al-Sharif is diligent about reminding readers that Saudi women do have a history of political resistance, even if the results have so far been scant. For example, al-Sharif got the original idea to resist the driving ban after hearing about a similar campaign by women activists, which took place in the 1990s.
So far, no reforms to Saudi driving laws have appeared, and al-Sharif remains a divisive figure in the Kingdom, and beyond. She and her allies—both male and female—continue to pay a high personal cost, with most of their aspirations still deferred. Even so, stories like al-Sharif’s indicate that the Kingdom’s days of strict Wahabi censorship and overwhelming government suppression are waning. While it will likely take decades to accomplish necessary change, al-Sharif’s favorite proverb captures the audacious realism required to continue the struggle. “The rain,” she says, “begins with a single drop.”