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Daring to Drive
A Saudi Woman's Awakening
Table of Contents
About The Book
Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca the second daughter of a taxi driver, born the year strict fundamentalism took hold. In her adolescence, she was a religious radical, melting her brother’s boy band cassettes in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But what a difference an education can make. By her twenties Manal was a computer security engineer, one of few women working in a desert compound built to resemble suburban America. That’s when the Saudi kingdom’s contradictions became too much to bear: she was labeled a slut for chatting with male colleagues, her school-age brother chaperoned her on a business trip, and while she kept a car in the garage, she was forbidden from driving on Saudi streets.
Manal al-Sharif’s memoir is an “eye-opening” (The Christian Science Monitor) account of the making of an accidental activist, a vivid story of a young Muslim woman who stood up to a kingdom of men—and won. Daring to Drive is “a brave, extraordinary, heartbreakingly personal” (Associated Press) celebration of resilience in the face of tyranny and “a testament to how women in Muslim countries are helping change their culture, one step at a time” (New York Journal of Books).
Reading Group Guide
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Born to struggling parents in Mecca, Manal al-Sharif understood from an early age that she would never experience the same freedoms her male peers enjoyed. In keeping with Saudi custom, from the onset of puberty, Manal had to remain fully veiled and become virtually invisible; wearing perfume and leaving the house unless absolutely necessary were considered sinful. She faced an abrupt separation from her male cousins, and she was discouraged from any self-expression.
As an adolescent, Manal found herself drawn to the incendiary teachings of her radical Islamist instructors, and she became a religious zealot herself, eagerly exposing the forbidden activities of her own siblings. But by her twenties, after earning a university degree, Manal was a computer security engineer, one of a few women working in a desert compound that functioned more like suburban America than the Saudi kingdom. With her eyes wide open to the opportunities and liberties that had previously been denied to her as a female citizen, Manal al-Sharif found herself in a unique position to advocate for women’s civil rights and make her mark on Saudi Arabian history.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Manal grew up in relative poverty. What facets of her upbringing surprised you most: that her family was not rich? That her parents had both been divorced? That her father could not read or write? Why?
2. The Saudi Rule of Guardianship: The Saudi rule of guardianship exists because the Saudi system does not recognize women as adults for their entire lives. “Even a woman in labor will not be admitted into a hospital without her guardian or at least a mahram. Police cannot enter a home during a robbery, and firefighters are forbidden from entering a home during a fire or medical emergency if a woman is inside but does not have her mahram present.” (7) To your mind, which would be more difficult to live with: Saudi rules requiring male guardians for everything from emergencies to travel, schooling, and employment or forbidding women from driving? Could one policy change without the other changing as well? As a result of the guardianship rule, what advantages and disadvantages might women encounter in their everyday lives?
3. Virginity: At eight years old, Manal gets circumcised against her will, after which her mother warns her repeatedly not to participate in any physical activity that might damage her hymen and call her purity into question. Were you surprised by the emphasis on virginity and sexual purity in book? What would you say to a person who was defending these practices in Saudi society?
4. “As soon as a girl reaches puberty . . . she is obliged to enter a state known in Arabic as khidr (‘numbness’). She must be outwardly devoid of emotions and feelings. In public, she must veil herself from prying eyes and avoid speaking.” (90) What do you think is the primary objective or purpose of the veiling of women in Saudi Arabia? What do you think explains Manal’s ever-changing feelings about the coverings she wears? What does the onset of veiling for girls in Saudi Arabia suggest about society’s views of girlhood, womanhood, and female sexuality?
5. How does Manal’s embrace of religious fanaticism as an adolescent affect her relationships? When Manal betrays her siblings and exposes their haram (forbidden) activities—her brother’s clandestine listening to Western music, and her sister’s secret conversations on the phone with a man—to their parents, to what extent does she believe their punishments are justified? How did you respond to these punishments and conflicts? Are they similar to basic family issues around the world, or are they fundamentally different?
6. As a young student, Manal al-Sharif receives instruction in the Doctrine of Loyalty and Disavowal, a tenet of radical Islam that compels Muslims to hate anyone deemed infidel, or faithful to a religion or creed other than Islam. Manal later rejects these ideas. Do you think that Manal’s views might have changed anyway if the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had not happened?
7. “It can be difficult for people living outside of Saudi to understand why so many in our culture, women in particular, submit, stay, and suffer . . . physical violence. But the price of resisting can be even higher.” (183) In light of the physical violence that she endures over the course of her life, to what extent does Manal al-Sharif embody a stereotypical Saudi woman? By serving as the face of a grassroots campaign aimed at changing Saudi attitudes about female drivers, how does she expose herself to the possibility of violence? To what extent do you think this makes her a hero?
8. When Manal al-Sharif gets arrested and jailed for driving outside the Aramco compound, Saudi authorities claim that she disobeyed orf, or tradition—not the law. Given that official Saudi code does not prohibit women drivers, why do you think the police chose to incarcerate Manal? What do the distinctions between tradition and the law reveal about the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system and the power of its religious police?
9. “In Saudi Arabia, your patriotism is measured by how much you love the king. The king is revered like a father, and we are considered his daughters and sons.” (13) Consider the Saudi concept of patriotism and discuss how political dissent is viewed in Saudi society. To what extent does the Women2Drive campaign seem patriotic?
10. Discuss the impact of developing technology (satellite dishes, the Internet, cell phones with cameras, and social media) on the daily life in Saudi Arabia. To what extent is this kind of disruption inevitable for all societies? How is it uniquely threatening to insular societies like Saudi Arabia?
11. Of the many rich details of Saudi Arabian life detailed by Manal al-Sharif in Daring to Drive, which did you find most memorable or eye-opening and why? Discuss and compare your reactions and reflections with members of your book club.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In a fifteen-minute TED talk she delivered in 2013, Manal al-Sharif asks her audience to consider whether battling oppressive governments or battling oppressive societies is more difficult. You may want to use al-Sharif’s question to her audience as a prompt for your club’s discussion about Daring to Drive. At a break in your discussion, screen Manal al-Sharif’s TED talk with your group. How does the experience of seeing and hearing Manal al-Sharif articulate her views online differ from the act of reading about them in Daring to Drive? You may want to ask your club to examine the emotional impact of different types of media, and consider why Manal al-Sharif chose to upload a video of herself driving and talking about the Women2Drive campaign rather than merely blogging about it. Have members of your club compare and contrast their reactions to Manal al-Sharif’s ideas in both audio/visual and literary genres.
Watch Manal al-Sharif’s 2013 Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/manal_al_sharif_a_saudi_woman_who_dared_to_drive#t-31600
2. In Daring to Drive, Manal al-Sharif describes her family’s elaborate preparations for Eid al Fitr, the annual holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to mark the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Discuss the family’s holiday customs, including the types of food prepared and procured, the distribution of gifts, the carefully chosen clothing, the relatives included in the event, and the traditional decorations used to mark the joyous occasion. Ask members of your book group to reflect on significant holidays they celebrated as children and to share some of their most vivid memories with each other. If members of your group are so inclined, they might want to prepare traditional dishes from their own childhood celebrations for a potluck feast. Alternatively, ask members of the club to choose one of the treats Manal al-Sharif describes and prepare it for a shared Eid-themed meal.
3. The veiling of Muslim women in conservative Saudi society continues to fascinate and repel people throughout the world. While some Saudi women consider the veil to be an outward sign of their inner piety, others rebel at their imposed confinement. Manal al-Sharif likens her own experience of wearing a niqab to a kind of disorienting blindness. Have members of your book club voice their thoughts about the veiling of women in Saudi Arabia. At any time in their lives have members of your club felt “veiled” either figuratively or literally—kept hidden or separate from others because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion? How does the veiling of women uphold the aims of the Saudi kingdom? You may want to reflect on the recent controversies that have arisen in socially liberal countries regarding their treatment of Muslim citizens who choose to wear veils.
A Conversation with Manal Al-Sharif
Your imprisonment for breaking with Saudi convention and driving a car in public became an international cause célèbre. What are some of the impressions that people have of you because of this act of civil disobedience? Are they right or wrong?
I have two images: one inside Saudi Arabia and one outside of the country. Most people back home see me only as evil or, as some imams called me in their Friday sermons, a whore who should be lashed in public and shamed, so no other girl will follow in her footsteps. Most people abroad see a hero who stood up for what she believes in. I can give a small example with my own mother (God bless her soul). Mom was a very simple woman. When she was inside Saudi Arabia, I was dealing with her tears when she read or heard something bad about me, and there were plenty of bad things and plenty of tears! People criticized her, saying that she didn’t know how to bring up a good Muslim woman. But all this changed when my mother went on her annual trip to see her family in Egypt. She would call me with so much joy and pride in her voice, telling me that people in Egypt saw me as a hero, and that many women there look up to me. People would ask my mom to send me their regards, and girls would ask if they could talk to me or have my email. Her family and friends showed her articles and TV shows that spoke highly of me! But it took all that to change Mom’s view. And she is my own mother! Imagine a complete stranger who knows me only from what other people say!
How do you reconcile your mother’s extraordinary generosity and her unfailing encouragement of her children’s education with the brutal physical attacks she inflicted on you and your siblings? To what extent have those childhood experiences influenced the way you parent your children?
I feared and hated my mother as a child. We were taught all those anasheed (Islamic rhymes), Quran and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH) that speak of how we should love and respect our mothers. But I was confused, because my mother did not behave in the ways that those songs said about other mothers! But as I grew up and went to college, and Mom stopped beating us, I started seeing a broken woman who tried to do everything to make sure we got an education, clean clothes, food, and the encouragement to finish our education by rejecting marriage suitors. Slowly, I also came to understand why my parents were okay with my and my sister’s circumcisions, although Mom told us the story of her own circumcision and how she ran away from the house, bleeding, before the woman could finish her job. She hid in their neighbor’s house for days. But she still did the exact same thing to us. The society puts so much pressure on parents that they submit to. Mom came from a very rich family but accepted to live in poverty and worse conditions, because she wanted her independence from her family. In many ways she refused to submit to anyone. She made her own money and taught us how to be financially independent. And for that, I love my mother dearly. It all comes down to putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to see the world through their window. Things really look different once you understand the whys. Mom was truly my hero.
Sadly, beating was considered—and still is—a normal practice. If parents beat their kids, it’s a way of discipline. Beating remains a controversial topic in Saudi society.
How did the many individual freedoms you experienced as an employee and resident of the Aramco compound contribute to your decision to challenge the restrictive order of the Saudi kingdom outside its gates?
I think it was a culmination of many experiences—not only the freedoms in Aramco, but before that, the freedom of choosing my own clothes and working for an hourly rate at the University of Jeddah. That contributed to my self-esteem. And it gave me more liberty to make my own decisions, such as buying the satellite dish and getting the Internet connection in our house. These small things, put together, created in me a realization that there is something wrong with the way women are treated. And although I could drive and didn’t always have to be covered, there were many parts of the Aramco experience that weren’t all that nice, because I was a Saudi woman. It was nice only with the non-Saudi women. For example, as a Saudi, I was under continuous scrutiny from my male colleagues. Women from other countries were not under the same scrutiny. They had different rules.
What prompted your decision to start a Facebook group called Saudi Female Employees of Aramco, and how much of a risk were you taking by doing so?
It was an undercover group. The frustration of so much discrimination in the company policies, especially the policy to deny housing to female Saudi workers, brought it up. I could have lost my job if I was reported as the person who started it.
To what extent did your year in the U.S. serve as the catalyst that transformed you into a political activist for women in Saudi Arabia?
I never understand when someone calls me an activist! I think I’m the type of person who won’t accept wrongdoing, and over time, I have found the guts to speak up. I remember when I was working at Aramco and brought up the issue of being excluded from the training just because I was a woman. I kept fighting and eventually prevailed. After that, my colleagues called me a troublemaker. It did upset me but didn’t stop me. I also think after turning thirty we change, we become more mature and more sure of ourselves. My thirtieth birthday happened the year I was in the US. Living there felt normal! Everything I needed to do I could do by myself. When I returned to Saudi Arabia, I felt disabled, as if they had cut off my hands and feet but gave me no wheelchair. It was so frustrating to know that all the extra steps, restrictions, and difficulties that I had to go through every day back home were all man-made. There was nothing wrong with me except that I was a woman. My colleagues in Aramco said that I came back a different person.”
How important was your brother’s support when you wanted to drive?
My brother changed as I changed. Before he was married, he was far less accepting. He couldn’t really understand my divorce and my situation. But after he went through the experience of having a wife who couldn’t drive, and all the worry and suffering that caused, he saw exactly what I was talking about. Once he finally understood, he became very supportive. I think in any effort to make lives better for women, it is very important to include men and to educate them. It does change a lot when the men are involved with us.
You have characterized domestic human rights organizations in Saudi Arabia as essentially powerless. How has social media impacted the visibility of the most vulnerable members of Saudi society?
It is the voice for the voiceless. We finally found a podium where we can speak our views, express views that before were just a few shouts in the dark. We also found like-minded people on social media. People are too afraid to speak up in Saudi in case their immediate circle of people disagrees. With the social media, you create your own circle, and more and more people are speaking up. Many have gotten into trouble and been jailed, but the government can’t jail a whole generation, particularly the Saudis who were born in the 1990s and later. It’s funny that my views are accepted and celebrated among this generation, and most of the resistance and criticism I face is from my own generation, those who were born in the seventies and eighties.
You no longer live in Saudi Arabia. To what extent was your ability to write Daring to Drive without fear of repercussion dependent on your living outside of the Saudi kingdom?
I’m still Saudi; I still travel back to Saudi so often, as my son and my family are still there. I wrote this book and have no idea of what is waiting for me once it’s published! But because I go back to Saudi, I had to hold back so many of the views that could get me in deeper trouble. When I wrote the book, I kept in mind that fine line that I didn’t cross so as to be able to go back home.
In your book, Daring to Drive, you write: “There can be no modern Saudi kingdom as long as women are still ruled by men.” What do you think it will take for the male rulers of Saudi Arabia to effect the far-reaching social changes required to bring their country up to speed with the rest of the world?
Let women drive their own lives and prepare men to accept and support that. Introduce constitutional monarchy where people have say in their life, promote more freedom of speech, political rights, and liberties.
How do you continue to challenge the social and religious conditions that prevent girls and women from achieving full enfranchisement, both in Saudi Arabia and abroad?
“Never, never, never give up.” Winston Churchill.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 13, 2017)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476793047
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Raves and Reviews
“A brave, extraordinary, heartbreakingly personal story of one woman’s battle for equal rights.... The book provides a rare glimpse into... the hearts and minds of people who live in a society that is mostly off-limits to Westerners. [Al-Sharif's] literary achievement is that despite the huge cultural differences, Daring to Drive shows that Saudi women and men have dreams and fears much like our own.”
– Associated Press
“Future generations will marvel at Manal al-Sharif, whose voice is laden with quiet dignity even at its most urgent. Her gripping account of homegrown courage will speak to the fighter in all of us.”
– Deborah Feldman, New York Times bestselling author of Unorthodox
“An astonishing, humble, truthful book, more illuminating than a hundred newspaper stories on Saudi Arabia. Manal is no Chanel-draped, chauffeur-driven Saudi princess. Her account of why a single working mother’s life compelled her to confront the kingdom’s fiercely patriarchal ways is touching and revealing in equal measure.”
– Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad
“Al-Sharif’s back story... should shock you even if you think you already have a pretty good handle on conditions for women in Saudi Arabia.”
– Meghan Daum, The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating, powerful, and heartbreaking... a truly eye-opening read.”
– Library Journal (starred review)
– Jewish Journal
“Eye-opening... [and] compelling.”
– Christian Science Monitor
“A captivating read. Manal al-Sharif refuses to hide her scars, unveiling what she endured and sacrificed to become a professional who has fearlessly pushed the boundaries of tradition.”
– Elena Gorokhova, author of Russian Tattoo
“There are vignettes of laughter and love... [and] glimpses of rich, vibrant Arab life.... A testament to how women in Muslim countries are helping change their culture, one step at a time.”
– New York Journal of Books
“If you consider yourself interested in women’s rights or the cultures of other lands, Daring to Drive should be a mandatory addition to your reading list.”
– The News Wheel
“Remarkable. Manal al-Sharif invites us to ride with her to bend the arc of history towards equality and justice.”
– Rula Jebreal, international bestselling author of Miral
“If you’re searching for an inspiring memoir, Daring to Drive should be on your must-read list.”
– Bitch Magazine
“An intimate look at life for women growing up in Saudi Arabia and the challenges of seeking major social change.”
“Al-Sharif’s transformation from religious radical to feminist champion is incredibly inspiring.”
“Daring to Drive is an important book.... Al-Sharif tells her story in clear, readable prose... [and] provides readers with unusual insight into what it means to be a woman under Wahhabi.”
– Me, You, and Books
“An intimate and powerful book from what is hopefully only the first of many Saudi voices to speak out.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Bold.... [This] inspiring book shows the importance of education, critical thinking, and standing up for a cause against impossible odds.”
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