Book review: Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening by Manal al-Sharif

Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif (first published in 2017 in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster

The 26th of September 2017 was a day thousands of Saudi Arabian women rejoiced in receiving the news that they will be allowed to drive as of June 2018. Up until then, the kingdom's long-founding policy meant that it was the only nation in the world where women were forbidden from getting behind the wheel of a car. This is a battle Manal al-Sharif was all too familiar with.

Read more: WATCH: A few predictions on what driving for Saudi women will be like

What started off as a small complaint to her work colleague in May 2011 about the harassment she had to face trying to find a ride back home, although she had a car and an international driver’s license, turned into a campaign that sparked international headlines. 

Interestingly, that day, her colleague responded with, “But there is no law banning you from driving”. He was right. There was no law embedded in the country's legal system that forbid women from driving. It was simply a custom and tradition enshrined in rigid religious fatwas (a ruling of Islamic law given by a recognised authority) that was imposed on women.

That realisation ignited the idea of June 17 where Manal and others encouraged women to take the wheel and drive. She, too, drove and posted a video on YouTube that got hundreds of thousands of views that day. What followed was she being faced with an organised defamation campaign in the local media and threats to be raped and killed. The Saudi authorities remained mum. 

While international headlines were along the lines of 'Saudis Arrest Woman Leading Right-to-Drive Campaign' and 'Saudi woman arrested after defying driving ban', the local media painted a different picture with headlines like 'Manal al-Sharif faces charges of disturbing public order and inciting women to drive', and 'Manal al-Sharif breaks down and confesses: foreign forces incited me', she says in her Ted talk.

She and her brother were then arrested and she signed a pledge not to drive again and was released. But then she was arrested, again, and was sent to jail. Outside the jail, the country erupted into frenzy. Some attacked her while others supported her, even collecting signatures in a petition to be sent to the king to release Manal. 

This is a story of a woman who was punished for daring to challenge the society’s rules, and when her father had to sit in a Friday sermon listening to the imam (religious leader) condemning women drivers and calling them prostitutes among a ton of worshippers, she did not give up.

In Daring to Drive, the system that is based on ultra-conservative traditions and customs that deal with women as if they are inferior are deeply challenged and deconstructed. That women need a guardian to protect them, thereby requiring – verbal or written – permission from this guardian all their lives is a major theme that is discussed throughout the book.

And the powerful point she makes is that what’s worse is when they become codified as laws in the system and when women themselves believe in their inferiority and they even fight those who try to question these rules. 

That her book grapples with the complexities of addressing this plodding policy is enlightening, but is not so much the page turner as the several other layers of intricate patriarchal policies that have been embedded in Saudi's patriarchal system and that are enshrined in religious fatwas based on an incorrect interpretation of Islamic law.

From the traumatic effects of female circumcision to Western dolls being treated as a contraband in Saudi homes, to Saudi women prohibited from participating and attending sport events and discovering how 9/11 divided Saudi society into two sections, the book is a nail-biter and a global read because of the several themes that are explored.

Manal doesn't know when she became an activist, she says in her Ted talk, but is proud to be among those women who lifted and fought the ban and evoked change. And in her talk, she leaves the audience with a powerful question: "...all over the world, people fight for their freedom; for their rights. Some battle oppressive governments, others battle oppressive societies. Which battle, do you think, is harder?"

Purchase a copy of the book from Takealot.

WATCH: A Saudi woman who dared to drive | Manal al-Sharif

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