Manal Al-Sharif describes women’s subordinate status in Saudi Arabia

Manal Al-Sharif. Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. Simon and Schuster, 2017.


Manal Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca.  She and her sister were painfully circumcised despite the fact that the Prophet’s daughters were not. She had surgery before marriage to repair some of the damage.  She said in her autobiography Daring to Drive that her generation was “brainwashed” to be extreme Muslims and they in turn “imposed this level of segregation and religiosity on their elders and set these draconian rules for their parents, rather than the other way around.”[1] By the early 1990s, female students had to wear not only the abaya but also the niqab to cover the face. Their teachers encouraged them to talk to their parents about sins, “most of which involved the behavior of women.” Girls were not supposed to run and jump for fear of losing their precious hymen, or play with boys, so that after living in a kind of house arrest, she said, “I became fully aware to what extent a girl’s virginity determines her fate in Saudi society.”[2]

The first government school for girls opened in 1964 without playgrounds and no activities such as music (considered satanic), theater, movies (there are still no movie theaters in the kingdom, or a library—but they weren’t allowed in the public library in Mecca. Even photography was haram (forbidden). Some novels were allowed, so her heroes were fictional characters like Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and Sinbad the Sailor. Students memorized and recited rather than responding to question or analyzing. The Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups were put in charge of education as Salfis gained influence in the 1980s and 1990s. They taught fear of going to hell and hatred of infidels, including non-Sailfis such as Shiites. Their religious teachers were male sheikhs who lectured over the school’s public address system and taught that women should get their husbands’ permission for everything. In university young women couldn’t participate as they listened to professors lecture to male students, with the exception of medical school students. But even the female students received a government monthly allowance. Some “tomboys” called aboya dressed like men and had a close woman friend. She became a leader in the campaign for women to drive, described below, lost her job as a consequence, and moved to Dubai. She started a campaign called I Am Lama that helped pass the first Saudi code against domestic violence and Earaj, a Twitter campaign to release domestic workers held in the Dammam prison where she was imprisoned for driving.

Al-Sharif reported almost every woman she knows has been harassed by her driver in a country with no public transportation and where many woman who pay as much as a third of their salaries to their drivers. She was put in a jail crawling with cockroaches where women and their children shared cots in a room with an open hole for a toilet. The Arab spring and the increase in use of social media inspired her where women had a voice. She started a Facebook group called Saudi Female Employees of Aramco. On November 6, 1990, 47 women drove in the capital, Riyadh. A young woman named Bahiya started a Facebook page called “We are driving May 17.”  Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a video driving in 2008; like al-Sharif who worked in the Aramco compound. Twitter became the most popular social media by 2011 when al-Sharif started @Women2Drive and a YouTube video that quickly received 120,000 views and became one of the top videos globally. She called on women to drive on June 17 and about three dozen women did drive in various cities but none were arrested. She stayed home to avoid being jailed again.. To avoid being called a protest, she asked women not to drive in groups and record themselves alone. She was called a Westernized whore and traitor. Her strategy was “never defend and never attack.” 216 A Facebook page called “By Iqal” called on men to beat women drivers and reports predicted there would be no more virgins if women were allowed to drive. In response, a Facebook page stated that women would respond with her shoe, as showing soles of shoes are an insult. Her arrest became international news. A new group started a Women2Drive Facebook page, including a 14-year-old girl who learned how to drive and drove her single mother and sisters. The king told the Shura council in October “We will not accept marginalizing women.” 270 She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and accused of being trained by CANVAS.

[1] Manal Al-Sharif. Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. Simon and Schuster, 2017, p. 89.

[2] Ibid., p. 51.

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