This morning I woke up to the sun shining through my windows. I checked the weather and put on a light summer dress to provide comfort in the heat. I hopped on my regular commuter train and took the empty seat next to an older gentleman. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about these details of my morning routine, just what life looks like for a young American woman. But I recently read the memoir of a modern-day woman whose life offered none of these freedoms—not even an open, unshaded window to sit by. You could say my perspective has changed.
Daring to Drive is the story of Manal al-Sharif, who first made headlines in 2011 when she was arrested in Saudi Arabia. The charge? “Driving while female.” Al-Sharif’s prison sentence is only one of many injustices that she and Saudi women more generally have experienced. The criminalization of womanhood, the mutilation of the female body, and the obstruction of women from choosing their own path in education and career. Al-Sharif identifies a paradox: In Saudi society, women are protected for being female and yet also criminalized for it.
Despite being a financially thriving country in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has been under human rights watch for years due to inhumane practices—most notably when it comes to the treatment of women. Things are slowly improving for female Saudi citizens—women were finally granted the right to vote in 2015—but even today, what we consider mindless daily habits for Americans are actions that face severe punishment for Saudi women.
On driving, al-Sharif writes, Saudi men refer to the women as queens, and they say, for instance, “that queens don’t drive.” (Women often mock this by saying it’s “the kingdom of one king and millions of queens.”) Traditional Saudi custom requires men and women to remain separate wherever they go, yet because women are not allowed to drive, they must hire a male driver and be alone with him anytime they want to go out. At the same time, women are often criminalized when the system fails them. Once when al-Sharif was unable to get a driver to pick her up from a late appointment, she ended up walking alone in the streets. She was harassed by drivers on the road and followed. “In Saudi Arabia, harassment isn’t a criminal offense,” al-Sharif said. “The authorities, especially the religious police, always blame the woman. They say she was harassed because of how she looked or because of the way she was walking or because she was wearing perfume. They make you the criminal.”
Sadly, such treatment doesn’t happen only to adult women. As young girls, al-Sharif and her sister were once harassed by a boy, resulting in them being forced to stay in the house all the time. Upon starting their periods, guardians and family members isolated the girls to the point where they were prisoners in their own home, all in the name of protecting their virginity. Some, like al-Sharif, are also forced to undergo dangerous procedures such as female genital mutilation (FGM). In a very brief yet poignant portion of the book, al-Sharif addresses how her mother arranged for her to undergo FGM when she was 8 years old. Al-Sharif nearly died and describes the process as “a moment of such deep wounding that the scars will never fully heal.”
For al-Sharif, FGM was far from the end of her tenuous journey. In Saudi Arabia, women need permission from a male guardian for nearly everything they do—from enrolling in a university to renting an apartment to getting an identification card. When she was hired for her first job at Aramco, she expected to receive housing somewhere in the company’s sprawling campus. Instead, a male superior informed her that housing was not an option for the single women hired by the company, and she was to stay in a hotel—something that an unmarried Saudi woman was not allowed to do either.
As I have written in the past, the women I met during my time studying abroad in the Middle East inspired me for a variety of reasons. They run businesses, teach in schools, and have infectious senses of humor that are only possible with confidence. Another important reason they’ve inspired me is that they experience more pushback on a day-to-day basis than what I am accustomed to, yet they still press on. Reading al-Sharif’s story, I grew to appreciate the relative ease by which I have been able to get an education and the joyful memories I have of my childhood spent running outside with my siblings. While I’ve had fleeting run-ins with resistance in my own life, rarely have I been called upon to be brave just for being a woman.
Al-Sharif’s story ultimately reminded me that good intentions are not the same as good results. Women of different nations, ethnicities, and backgrounds than ours sometimes face a world far more challenging than most of us can imagine. After reading Daring to Drive, I walked away with a greater empathy for Saudi women, a fuller appreciation for the things that make me female, and a growing gratitude for my freedom. Dare to read it.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons