Review: Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif | books$reviews | Hindustan Times
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Review: Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif

While Daring to Drive is ostensibly the story of Manal al-Sharif’s struggle to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, it’s also an honest and very readable study of growing up female in a deeply conservative society

books Updated: Jul 28, 2017 21:44 IST
Manjula Narayan
Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif photographed in Dubai on October 22, 2013.
Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif photographed in Dubai on October 22, 2013.(AFP)

There are moments in Manal al-Sharif’s Daring to Drive that are truly frightening. Like when secret service men turn up at her doorstep in the middle of the night and insist she accompany them to the Dhahran police station:

In the shadowy darkness, all we could see were men, crowding around my front stoop, pressing forward. They had no uniforms, nothing to identify them. When my brother asked them who they were, there was silence. Finally, one of them spoke. “Is this Manal al-Sahrif’s house?

The opening chapter describing the author’s arrest for the heinous crime of ‘driving while female’ immediately pushes the reader into conservative Saudi Arabian society with its many unwritten codes. One of them is the rule against women drivers, which Manal learns from a male colleague is actually merely a custom and not law:

That night, I fed my son dinner and put him to bed, and I sat down at my computer. I read the entire traffic code. At first I felt nothing but anger. Then, slowly, I began to reread each world, aloud. I went though each line of the code. There was not one reference to the gender of the driver. Pages 117 to 121 listed all possible traffic violations and offenses. None of them included “driving while female”. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the official Saudi traffic code indicated it was illegal for women to drive.

Manal was to learn the hard way that in Saudi Arabia where men and women are strictly segregated and religion is so central that it governs every aspect of an individual’s life, customs are often more powerful than any written law. It was custom that decreed that she cut off all ties with her male cousins once she began menstruating; it was custom that pushed her father as her mahram or male guardian to ferry her back and forth from college every day, and it was custom that gave the religious police the authority to yell in the street at her and eventually haul her to prison for daring to drive a car.

If the story of Manal’s struggle to drive is the pivot of the book, its chassis encompasses the whole of Saudi society. The contemporary reader learns of the fundamentalist attack on Mecca in the 1970s that pushed Saudi Arabia into orthodoxy and of how the growing influence of the Wahabi interpretation of Islam led to ever stricter rules governing behavior. The book, which the blurb pegs as a “visceral coming-of-age tale”, also offers a fascinating picture of growing up deeply religious and female in a society where even listening to music was considered haram, forbidden. Rather inexplicably, Manal’s descriptions of herself as a teenage religious fanatic, who burnt her brother’s music cassettes and her mother’s fashion magazines, lead the less conservative reader to develop a compassionate view of an individual entirely unlike herself.

While the book does not gloss over the shortcomings of Saudi society, it avoids degenerating into a rant. The authorial voice is always compassionate, constantly attempting to understand herself as a product of that society and the many forces that contributed to making her native land what it is. While the ordeal of Manal’s arrest for driving is the book’s central event, it’s the chapters of her imprisonment that reveal her heroic side:

I tried to find ways to keep myself from going crazy. I bought a small notebook from Umm Misha’an and began to record the names and stories of the women in prison with me… Saudis employed hundreds of thousands of women, mainly from Asian countries, to do their cooking, their laundry and to take care of their children. Saudi Arabia has no domestic labor codes, so any right these women have are determined solely by their employer. We hear stories of foreign women who are mistreated or not paid, making them virtual prisoners in the homes in which they worked. Now I found myself in a jail cell surrounded by many of these poor, frightened women… My arrest was in some ways an education: I was learning about domestic slavery.

After she was released from prison, Manal helped many of her dispossessed jail mates make their way back home.

Read more: Saudi police release woman in viral miniskirt video without charge

This could very easily have become a self-centred book aimed at “building the author’s brand”, one that panders to Western prejudices about Saudi Arabia. Instead, it is an honest telling of a young woman’s struggles in a rigidly patriarchal society that the author clearly has affection for even as she chafes at its restrictive ways and attempts to improve it through activism.

Daring to Drive made this reviewer glad she’s an Indian woman living in what is still a secular state, glad she’s never had to think twice before driving to the supermarket down the road, to the hospital in the dead of night during an emergency, or zipping from one city to the next. Perhaps one day soon, because of the efforts of plucky women like Manal al-Sharif, Saudi women too will enjoy the same freedom.