Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia sex segregation

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.

Commend Sweden for Telling the Truth about Saudi Violation of Human Rights


Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia in Novel

The best-selling and controversial Arabic language “chick-lit” novel Girls of Riyadh (2005) describes the frustration in upper class young women’s and men’s interaction. The 25-year-old author says classes don’t interact except for servants and their employers, nor do Shiites and Sunnis. The narrator reports, “Any fledgling love relationship, no matter how innocent or pure, was sure to be seen as suspect and therefore repressed.”[1] Even married couples don’t socialize; husbands find it embarrassing to be seen with their wives shopping or eating at a restaurant.[2] Young men try to get their phone numbers to young women they see in malls, driving on the street—giving business cards through an open window, or meet briefly at weddings when they can quickly look each other over when the groom and his friends briefly join the bride and her friends. Their main way to interact is on their cell phones and on the Internet chat sites. All but one of four of the college-age friends are frustrated in their search for love because they’re not acceptable to a boyfriend’s family, one husband is in love with a foreign woman who his family would never permit him to marry, and one looses her fiancé’s respect for having sex with him before the wedding ceremony.

Above all else, it’s important to preserve one’s reputation as a good girl, similar to India. Even after being legally engaged, some families only allow one “viewing” for the young couple to interact except on the phone, but some of the girls managed to sneak visits. Lamees, the only friend who happily marries her love, met him in one of the few places men and women are allowed to interact, in a hospital where they are medical students. The secret of her success is she plays hard to get, making a list of what she will not do such as be open about herself because “an open-book girl is no challenge.” Being “vague and mysterious” induces him to propose marriage. Marriage seems to be the young women’s main goal, with no interest in global issues like politics except for scandals.[3] The narrator’s favorite show is Sex in the City. She does frequently quote the Koran, showing the importance of Islam in the characters’ daily lives. The novel shows the restraints on young men and women who find ways to connect electronically.

[1] Rajaa Alsanea. Girls of Riyadh. Penguin, 2007,p. 88.

[2] Rajaa Alsanea, p. 245.

[3] Rajaa Alsanea, p. 65.