Behind the wheel, in control of her life

Behind the wheel, in control of her life

Behind the wheel, in control of her life
Manal al-Sharif was 14 when she burned her brother’s Back Street Boys cassettes, then her mother’s fashion magazines. She gave up drawing human figures and reading her prized Agatha Christie novels — forbidden, she had learned, under the puritanical strain of Islam sweeping through her native Saudi Arabia at the time. All kinds of things were forbidden for women and girls, she had also learned: no plucking your bushy eyebrows, no parting your hair fashionably to the side, no revealing your face in public.

The one thing she could not destroy was a plastic bag of family photographs that her mother had stashed in her bedroom. She found them, years later, after her mother had died. There was a photo of herself, in a red dress for Eid; another of her mother, in a calf-length skirt she had stitched herself; another of her dad, barechested, for the hajj.

“I’m so happy she hid them from me,” al-Sharif said the other day, scrolling through the images she had uploaded on her phone. “I thought we didn’t have any.”

Al-Sharif, 38, has undergone a radical change of heart since those Salafi firebrand days. She is now best known for challenging the laws and mores that keep women down in Saudi Arabia, including what she considers the kingdom’s infantilising restrictions on the right of women to drive.

Her first book, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, published this week by Simon & Schuster, is a memoir of her political coming of age. It is equally a portrait of tumult and tyranny in Saudi Arabia over the last four decades — and the kingdom’s vexing relationship with the United States.

I met al-Sharif in Norway, at a human rights conference in the capital, Oslo, in late May, as the Trump family was visiting her country. Speaking to women in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Ivanka Trump called the country’s progress on women’s rights “very encouraging,” even as she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Al-Sharif found the appraisal insulting. She pointed to the case of her friend Mariam al-Otaibi, detained since April for her campaign against a policy that requires a woman to obtain the permission of a male guardian to work, study or travel, regardless of how old she is. Al-Sharif wears a blue plastic wristband in support of the campaign to end the guardianship system. “#IAmMyOwnGuardian,” the wristband reads.

“What type of progress in women’s rights?” she said. “I wish she was more specific so I wouldn’t feel insulted. If you don’t want to support us, just stay quiet. Don’t praise. You’re making it worse for us.”

Al-Sharif was born at home in 1979, the second daughter of a Saudi father and a Libyan mother. They lived in a cramped apartment in Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s holiest and most religiously conservative city. Her father drove a taxi. Her mother stitched their clothes from designs she had copied from fashion magazines. There wasn’t always running water. There was a lot of abuse: her father beating her mother, her sister beating her, and later her first husband beating her. Lots and lots of beatings.

Her generation was bound by a rigid form of Islam. She remembers religious leaders coming to lecture on her school’s public address system. Leaflets were passed out in the streets, prescribing what and what not to do.

An elderly aunt who had always worn colourful traditional Saudi gowns suddenly began to cloak herself in a head-to-toe black abaya, because her children told her to. Her mother took down from the bedroom wall a decorative hand-stitched canvas of a woman, bathing. Photos vanished from their apartment. 

Being true to that sort of doctrine, as she recalled it, required hating the infidel. “My generation, born in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we were all radicalised,” she said. “You give up so much to follow these rules. It gets under your skin.” It left her skin, slowly.

Then there was September 11. She was appalled that the extremist doctrine she grew up in had spurred 19 hijackers — 15 from Saudi Arabia — to kill so many people. She had had enough of the hate. Inside Saudi Arabia, the rules were — and remain — particularly onerous for women.

Al-Sharif needed her father’s permission to enter university; she studied computer science. She needed his permission to apply for a job; she was hired as an information security specialist at Aramco, the Saudi oil company. She needed his permission to travel abroad for a business trip, and to get a passport.

Driving change

A work trip to New Hampshire changed her outlook on many things. She went to the theatre, where she saw two men kissing. She went skiing. She learned to drive.

And then, in 2011, came a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. Al-Sharif was back in Saudi Arabia by then, living in the Aramco compound, a divorced single mother to her son, Abdalla. She had bought a car. She was allowed to drive inside Aramco compound.

One morning in May 2011, she decided it was time to take it for a spin outside. A friend sat in the passenger seat and recorded the drive on her phone. By afternoon, it was a YouTube sensation. International news coverage followed, and, eventually, a knock on the door in the middle of the night by Saudi authorities. Al-Sharif was thrown in a women’s prison, crawling with cockroaches.

Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, came under pressure to speak out in favour of the Saudi women’s campaign to drive. “What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” Clinton said.

In 2012, al-Sharif received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference of human rights advocates. Al-Sharif had never heard of Havel, the Czech dissident writer who went on to become president, nor did she know precisely what dissent meant.
Speaking out — and that too, abroad — meant losing her job, al-Sharif said, along with company housing. Only later did she realise that she was following in the footsteps of women who had dared to drive as far back as 1990, and had become social outcasts afterward.

She lives in Australia now, with her husband, a Brazilian, and their 3-year-old son. She has applied for the Saudi government to recognise her second marriage and has yet to receive it. Exile is frustrating. “When you’re there you don’t just talk. You take action,” she said. “I feel little bit helpless now, being outside.”

And then there’s her firstborn son. He lives in Saudi Arabia, with his father. Al-Sharif visits as often as she can. He asks her all kinds of questions about all kinds of things, like whether to talk to a girl.
“I say: ‘Abdalla, you’re a very intelligent boy. I’ll give you two answers. An answer that I believe in. And an answer that’ll keep you away from trouble,'” she said. He is now 12, and she hopes he will one day read the book and understand her choices. “It tells my whole story.”