Daring to drive : a Saudi woman's awakening

Manal al-Sharif did not plan to be a rebellious leader of a social or political movement, or to be civilly disobedient, and certainly not to bring any type of public notice to herself, but that is just what happened. She said the cause chose her. Raised in a traditional Muslim home in Saudi Arabia, she tried to be an obedient daughter and student, but inwardly questioned rules and regulations that seemed unfair and irrational. As a smart young woman, she attended King Abdulaziz University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science which led to a job with Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a computer security engineer. Even though Aramco is a working and living compound unto itself, single Saudi women are not allowed to live there without a male guardian. Religious and social customs permeate all aspects of society, and made it impossible for Manal to find housing. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to find a place to live, Manal and another female Aramco employee, Lamia, found permanent housing because Lamia’s father signed a pledge that permitted his "two daughters" to live in a residential compound in Khobar City.  However getting to Aramco from Khobar City was another problem.  The  Aramco employee bus would not pick up female employees, only male employees. This and other factors were the impetus for Manal's daring to drive as a woman in Saudi Arabia, and for which she was arrested by the secret police. Manal thinks a woman's ability to drive in Saudi Arabia is a major factor in the emancipation of all women.

What sounds like a short story by Kafka, is a reality of life for Saudi women who live under the guardianship system that takes place at birth. A woman cannot choose or change her guardian. It goes from a woman’s father to her husband, and if she is widowed or divorced back to her father or brother, or a woman’s son. A woman is anything but free, and must seek the sanction and approval of her guardian for almost all activities in her life.

Manal al-Sharif writes honestly about her own life that is representative of many women’s lives who live under this oppressive religious and social system. Not sparing any details, she documents all aspects of her life including how she and her sister suffered the humiliation, pain and danger of being circumcised, "So it was that a few minutes on a single summer morning forever altered two young girls's lives in about as much time as it takes to unlock a car door, slide into a seat, pull a seat belt tight, engage the engine, and back out into the street." Also she is candid about her first marriage, her first son and divorce. Manal was able to leave Saudi Arabia, remarried and gave birth to another son. However, her personal anguish continues because she is not able to have even partial custody of her first child.

June 21, 2017 Manal was a guest at The Library Foundation's Aloud Program.