To read Manal Sharif’s account of getting a job at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, is to grasp the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the kingdom’s women. When the smart and ambitious Sharif, eschewing the more acceptable career path of teaching, was offered a position in Aramco’s all-male information security division, she quickly found herself hamstrung by a byzantine set of rules.
As she recounts in her eye-opening new memoir, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, Sharif was informed that Saudi women, unlike Saudi men and women and men of other nationalities, were barred from living in the Aramco compound. (Though the Saudi government took control of the American-founded company in 1980, its compound, originally built to house expatriate workers and modeled after a California suburb, is far less repressive than the world outside its gates.) A Saudi woman is also barred from staying in a hotel without a male guardian or leasing an apartment in her own name. Aramco is in Dhahran, while al-Sharif’s guardian, her father, was in her hometown of Mecca, a two-hour flight away. She didn’t tell her parents of her predicament, fearing that her father would demand she return home; though she was then a grown woman of 23, she still required her male guardian’s written permission to accept the job in the first place.
Through a series of complicated machinations, Sharif eventually found an apartment outside the compound, at which point she was confronted with her next challenge: how to get to work when Saudi women are not permitted to drive. She was relieved to learn that Aramco operated an employee bus, but when she attempted to board, she learned that it was for men only. “It was difficult not to feel as if every rule had been invented to ensure that I would fail,” she writes.
Over time, it was the prohibition against driving that Sharif chafed at most of all. She recounts the many indignities that resulted from the ban: finding herself stranded when she couldn’t locate a hired driver, being sexually harassed by drivers, draining her savings to pay others to get her where she needed to go. She describes leaving a doctor’s appointment at dusk and, unable to secure a ride, walking toward a shopping mall where she knew taxis would be waiting; as she walked alone, men shouted “whore” and “prostitute” from passing cars. “I did not hate men in their cars who had seen fit to harass me,” she writes. “I hated the rules that caged me inside my compound, that kept women tethered to the whim of our guardians, that kept us shut inside our homes more effectively than any lock.”
Sharif eventually bought an inexpensive car and retained her own driver. Not long after, through an Aramco exchange program, she spent a year working in the United States, returning home with a Massachusetts driver’s license and a burgeoning Western-style feminist consciousness.
Given that she possessed a valid license and her own car – and given that she’d learned, to her surprise, that there is no specific prohibition against women driving in the official Saudi traffic code – Sharif decided, in May 2011, to drive her car while a friend filmed her. She posted the video to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Two days later she drove again, but this time she was stopped by the police and cited for “driving while female.” She was detained for more than a week in an overcrowded, cockroach-infested prison, part of a government effort to deter other women from taking up the cause. She writes that a group of academics from the country’s religious council warned that “if women were allowed to drive, ‘within ten years, there would be no more virgins’ in Saudi Arabia.”
“Daring to Drive” covers the author’s difficult upbringing, from her forced circumcision at age 8 to the beatings she endured at her father’s hands to her brief flirtation with radical Islamism. Throughout, she makes the compelling and infuriating point that in Saudi Arabia, concern for women’s moral purity seems to outweigh concern for their very lives. In 2002, when a fire broke out in a girls’ school, the religious police “barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not wearing their abayas and were thus not following proper Islamic dress code”; 15 students died, senselessly. Police and firefighters will not enter a home during an emergency if a woman is alone inside. The author herself was born on the floor of her small apartment because her father was out when her mother went into labor and a woman cannot be admitted to a hospital without her male guardian present.
Sharif’s activism cost her her job and made it impossible to remain in her home country; she now lives in Dubai. The landscape in the kingdom has changed considerably since she left because of the rise of Uber, a company in which Saudi Arabia last year invested an astounding $3.5 billion. The vast majority of the app’s Saudi Arabian users are women. They might be finding it easier to get around these days, but men are still firmly in the driver’s seat.