Manal al-Sharif, a computer-security engineer at Aramco, the powerful Saudi state oil company, didn’t plan to become an activist. She was a modest, religious Muslim woman who began to see that, not the true religious laws or even Saudi laws, but many Saudi customs, were counterproductively restrictive. In the Aramco compound, a town unto itself, she was free to own her own home, raise her son, walk around unveiled, work with men, drive to work. But the kingdom at large was famously “the country of one king and millions of queens”—and queens, of course, don’t drive. Except when they do. In Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, published last week by Simon & Schuster, al-Sharif recounts her participation in the movement to let women drive and her encounter with the Saudi secret police. This intimate memoir also details the countless ways Saudi women are demeaned in the guise of “protecting” them. You can purchase the book at local booksellers or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
THE SECRET POLICE came for me at two in the morning. The second knock on the door quickly followed the first. They were loud, hard knocks, the kind that radiate out and shake the doorframe. My five-year-old son was asleep, but I was awake still, sitting up with my brother.
Startled, my brother jumped up and rushed to the entry. I stayed slightly behind, feeling the night air rush in as he pulled open the door. It was May, so the air was warm but still pleasant, not oppressively hot. And it was dark. My lone porch light had burned out weeks before and I hadn’t bothered to replace it. I thought about the light, I wondered whether the sudden noise would have woken my son—small thoughts passing through my mind in those seconds before everything changed.
In the shadowy darkness, all we could see were men, crowding around my front stoop, pressing forward. They had no uniforms, nothing to identify them. When my brother asked them who they were, there was silence. Finally, one of them spoke. “Is this Manal al-Sharif ’s house?”
My brother didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he answered, his voice firm.
“She needs to come with us right now. They want to see her at the Dhahran police station.” My brother did not have to ask why. That previous afternoon I had been pulled over by the traffic police for the “crime” of driving my brother’s car. The specific citation was “driving while female.” My brother had been sitting beside me, in the passenger seat, and then had sat next to me again for five hours inside the Thuqbah traffic police station, a two-story, nondescript concrete government building with a sturdy fence all around and a detention room where drivers could be held for hours
or even days. There was only one detention space in the station, and it was only for men. I’m quite sure that I was the first woman ever to enter the Thuqbah station. It took the police several hours, including a call to the commander and a visit to the local governor’s house, just to produce a paper for me to sign. The paper was a promise to never again drive on Saudi lands. I refused to sign, but they persisted. When my brother read the piece of paper, he realized I would only be admitting to having violated Saudi custom, because there are no specific Saudi statutes or lines in the traffic code that forbid women from driving. All they could accuse me of was disobeying the orf, or custom. I signed, and we were released. My brother and I took a taxi home, thinking that the incident was over, thinking that we had stymied the system, that in some small way, we had won.
We returned to my town house to find the TV on. There were pizza boxes on the coffee table, and three of my friends were clustered in my small living room with their laptops and smartphones. As I walked in, my sister-in-law started crying, and my friends rushed over and hugged me, shouting that they couldn’t believe the police had let me go. One friend had even started a Twitter hashtag, #FreeManal, after I’d texted him from the car when the police first pulled me over. Everyone was talking at once, telling me to look at this tweet or that Facebook page or this news feed. In the six hours, the news of my arrest had gone viral. But I couldn’t look at anything. I was exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. All I wanted to do was to take a shower and go to bed. But it is against every Saudi custom to ask guests to leave, so I sat and we talked about winning our first battle, about having proved that there is no traffic code explicitly banning women from driving. When they finally left, they were still so excited and happy—and so was I, thinking, Well, now no one can stop us.
But then it was 2:00 a.m. and there were men at my door and my elation from the day was gone. As soon as I heard the words “Dhahran police station,” I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.
From Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif, published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2017 by Manal al-Sharif. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.