Manal al-Sharif

Daring to Drive

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Daring to Drive Summary

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Daring to Drive is a 2017 memoir by Saudi Arabian writer and women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif. The memoir traces the evolution of al-Sharif’s grassroots coalition to fight for women’s right to operate motor vehicles in Saudi Arabia, a country whose government has systematically oppressed the basic rights and dignities of women since its establishment in 1932. The issue of women’s right to drive has, since 2011, come to symbolize a wider discussion about gender inequality in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and has resonances with feminist movements around the world. It also testifies to the power of social media to organize mass movements and democratize access to information about global political events.

Al-Sharif begins her memoir shortly before the beginning of her driving protest in 2011. She relocated from the United States, where she possessed a valid driver’s license, to her home country, hoping to convert her license to a Saudi driving permit. She went to work at the prestigious oil firm Aramco and was well-known for her professional excellence in IT. She immediately faced many obstacles unique to women, such as the inability to find housing without the approval of a male member of her family. She found that Aramco had canceled its housing program for female employees. Disgruntled, she and another female employee illegally rent an apartment in a nearby city, placing a pair of men’s shoes at the door to deter any questioning.

Early in 2011, al-Sharif joined a number of women on Facebook to create a number of Facebook pages and events, whose titles included “Women2Drive” and “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself.” The main point of these pages was to organize a movement starting on June 17 of that year, in which female participants would break the law by driving cars around Saudi Arabia. A month before the movement’s start date, 12,000 followers on Facebook had signed on to participate. Rather than characterize her movement as an act of protest, al-Sharif contends that the event was strictly within the boundaries of women’s inalienable rights. She received the support of a prominent Saudi activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, who founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia. Al-Huwaider’s coalition evolved out of another initiative to support women’s right to drive in 2007.

Before the official event began, al-Huwaider joined al-Sharif in her car and filmed her driving. While driving, al-Sharif made a statement about the absurdity of the oppressive law. They promoted the video on Facebook and YouTube. As an immediate result, she was arrested by the CPVPV, the Saudi religious police. She was released shortly after, and within two days, nearly a million people had viewed her video.

The Saudi government caught wind of the viral video, intervened, and censored her YouTube account. However, by then, many supporters had copied the video, releasing it on their own accounts across various social media channels. A summary of the core demands of the campaign was published by The New York Times, elevating the movement to the attention of mainstream journalism. On May 22, the CPVPV again arrested al-Sharif. Journalists began to question the Saudi Director General of Traffic Administration, Suleiman Al-Ajlan, who deflected their questioning to the country’s Consultative Assembly. They discovered that al-Sharif was given a five-day prison sentence for breaking the law.

Since her release from prison, al-Sharif continues to work for women’s rights in the Middle East. Her driving movement is known as one of the most important acts of feminist political defiance in Saudi Arabia, putting pressure on the Saudi government to improve its retrograde legislation. Al-Sharif laments that she could not publish her book in the Saudi market due to its rampant censorship; nevertheless, she hopes that her voice will create a ripple effect of policy changes both inside and outside Saudi Arabia.