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Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif

March 19, 2017


Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif.  Simon & Schuster (2017), 304 pages.

4 stars

An autobiographical account of a woman living under the extreme Islamic restrictions of Saudi Arabia, establishing her career in computer science, and attempting to drive an automobile in the country.

Manal al-Sharif was born in 1979, the daughter of a deeply religious working class family. As an adolescent, she embraced extreme Islam, the only life she knew. Unlike other girls, her mother insisted that she and her sister study rather than help with household chores.  She graduated from high school and went on to study computer science in college where she continued to be an excellent student.  She was hired as a computer scientist by the government-owned oil company, Aramco, and moved to the city they had built for their workers.  This city was governed by western customs; women could drive and were not required to be totally covered at all times.  While working she married, had a child, and then was divorced in order to continue her employment. Although she was successful in her career, restrictions on women in the nation plagued her.  Among the most bothersome was the prohibition of women driving.  Her activism on this issue led to her exile.

Al-Sharif tells her story in clear, readable prose.  In her acknowledgments, she notes that she had help organizing and writing her book.  At times it is not quite clear how or why she became as exceptionally successful as she did.  What is clear is that as she was empowered as an individual, she questioned the way women were treated in her country.  She never seems to question her faith and practice of Islam, simply the restrictive and legalistic way in which religious and governmental leaders enforced its practice.  Her focus is on the practical obstacles that her religion put in her way.  Her protest is never an abstract demand for rights, but about the details of her life.

The way in which Al-Sharif tells her story provides readers with unusual insight into what it means to be a woman under Wahhabi, the extremist version of Islam which holds power in Saudi Arabia.  Through her eyes we see how women must organize their lives so that a father, husband, brother, or son is present to approve or prohibit every move they make. Everything is structured around a woman being totally in the control of a male relative. Living alone is virtually impossible.  At times the rules actually make women’s lives more dangerous, as they must move around town only in a car with a male driver whose company has been approved.

The absurdity of the restrictions and the panic over the possibility of change is particularly clear when Al-Sharif and other women begin to communicate online around the issue of driving.  Somewhat naively, Al-Sharif took a video of herself driving and was jailed.  The uproar she caused is amazing.  She was accused of being an Iranian spy and of inciting all Saudi women to give up their virginity.

Daring to Drive is an important book, although I might wish Al-Sharif had written with more psychological and literary depth.  Since I began reading about women and Islam, I have been impressed by how Islamic women have been enriched by their faith, just as Christian woman have, although both religions are patriarchal institutions.  In this book, I was able to see the other extreme where Islam, again like Christianity, can be used in destructive ways.

I recommend this book to all who want to understand the wide variety of Islamic women’s lives.

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