REVIEW: Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif

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4/5 stars

“Don’t be afraid. Fear won’t prevent death, it prevents life.”
-Naguib Mahfouz, cited by Manal Al-Sharif

This is a book that needs to be read.

As prose, it’s not amazing–the tone is dry, sometimes excessively so, but I attribute that more to the logistics of Arabic-English translation than anything to do with the author. When I was reading, there was a distinct divide between the first seven chapters, where the dryness saturated the story and made it difficult to engage fully, and the latter seven, where the strength of the narrative overcame any stylistic shortcomings. Of course, this is largely personal preference, and I suspect others will enjoy the writing style for their own reasons.

As a memoir–a candid, veracious account of one working-class born Saudi woman’s life–it is nearly flawless. Al-Sharif’s strength shines through in every chapter: Forced to undergo horrific FGM as a young girl, then belittled and snubbed every step of her professional career as an adult, she makes it through anyway. What’s more remarkable is that her story represents that of many, many other women in the KSA. Never forget the stories of Dina Ali, who fled the country to seek asylum in Australia and was kidnapped by her uncles in Manila and dragged back, never to be seen again. Or the fifteen girls who died in a Meccan school fire when religious police stopped them from escaping the burning building because they weren’t “properly dressed.” Or even the Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala, and Mala, who although born in the lap of luxury as daughters of the late King Abdullah, have been locked away for over a decade in abuse and neglect, after speaking out against the kingdom’s abhorrent violation of human rights.

Those are only three high-profile examples of what happens in a country where women are considered less than people. Out of the millions more women in Saudi Arabia, we can only imagine how many more are facing abuse, oppression, deprivation that the law will never punish. Forget The Handmaid’s Tale, this is it. And if you’re one of the few women lucky enough to have a career outside the home, maybe even with a prestigious, “progressive” company like Aramco, forget about backwards in high heels, it’s backwards in a niqab while coworkers call you a slut and a bitch and your family has to lie about your job to preserve social standing.

I have deep respect for Al-Sharif.

Printed on the back of my hardcover are several quotes from other authors, and what Azadeh Moaveni has said particularly stuck with me: “Manal is no Chanel-draped, chauffeur-driven Saudi princess.” Her book describes, simply, “why a single working mother’s life compelled her to confront the kingdom’s fiercely patriarchal ways.” Indeed, when we think of Saudi women, it’s typically of either a uniform group of abayas without individual form or feature, or the cash-loaded, hard-partying, completely out of touch members of the royal family. Daring to Drive is a glimpse into the women under those abayas, who lost the birth lottery in a heap of ways.

Manal Al-Sharif was advised not to write her memoir, just as she was advised not to work with men at Aramco, then advised not to leave the husband who beat her in front of their infant son, then advised not to create Women2Drive and certainly not to actually get behind the wheel and film herself at it. Read the book, and it becomes obvious why.

“The rain begins with a single drop.
-Manal Al-Sharif

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