‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.










Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

Culture clash at the breakfast table

Harpers FerryIn 2011, my husband and I decided to celebrate our February anniversary with a getaway to Harpers Ferry.  The big news story at the time was the Arab Spring. As we headed out all eyes were on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the next steps in Egypt’s revolution. Like many inside the Beltway, I welcomed the chance to dial down the political conversation when DC disappeared from the rearview mirror.

The Jackson Rose is a small B&B, only 3 rooms, close to all the sights – a perfect choice when the weather might be blustery. After a day exploring the park and the hilly streets of Harpers Ferry we headed to Charlestown for dinner. Everything as planned.SnowyHouseYard

The next morning we headed to breakfast and a table set for six. I can’t remember anything about the food but the conversation will stay with me always. As guests at the same dining table, we introduced ourselves. We started with a coincidence. Before leaving town, Dan was a guest on a weekly radio show at WFED. While there he was introduced to a new engineer with WTOP, with which WFED shared studio space. The engineer, a young recent Egyptian immigrant, was there with his wife, a Palestinian staff member at CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. For both of them the news from Egypt was critically important.  Most of his family was still there so there was a mix of concern and excitement.  For her, the political and public impression of the Arab Spring and its impact on Arab-Americans was key. So much for leaving the Beltway behind.

The second couple was visiting from Norfolk, VA. Retired, she was a dedicated docent at the art museum. After talking about that for a few minutes she began speaking about her real passion. Her grandmother was a survivor of the genocide of Armenian Christians by the Turks in 1915-16. Her mother was born shortly after her grandmother arrived in the US. Her mission was two-fold: 1) to see a museum in downtown DC dedicated to telling the story, raising awareness of this often forgotten event, and 2) to secure a proclamation from the Congress criticizing the government of Turkey for the genocide and demanding acknowledgement that it did occur. The museum plans stalled and, despite many calls for passage, neither the Congress nor the White House formally criticized Turkey on the 100th anniversary this April.

And then Dan and Ellen. The “small world” conversation made clear what Dan does and I mentioned I facilitated a number of book groups. Any questions about our ethnicity/religion were answered with my responses about the groups and books that I was working with at the time.

At this small table we sat, Muslims, Christians and Jews, talking about the perceptions and misperceptions of our peoples. Talking about lands under contention and governments with mixed motivations. A playwright would have been criticized for writing such a scene.  We all looked or sounded our parts.  The young Palestinian-American with the hijab, the older Armenian-American with a glistening gold cross and me; each with our matching spouses. We each spoke with passion about our heritages and the importance of respect. I’m certain there were many points of difference in our views, but I see their faces at that table whenever the Armenian genocide or CAIR are mentioned. And I hope they do as well for putting a human face on conflicts can change the way we deal with them.

Yesterday, on the confluence of Yom Kippur and Eid al Adha, the holiest days on the Jewish and Muslim calendars, I completed my second reading of Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, a novel about the Armenian genocide and those who stood witness. While I will write about the book separately, I’m sure Bohjalian would have loved to be at that accidental gathering. Sometimes it is a book or a serendipitous conversation that brings a new perspective. When we hold on to those experiences we more able to bring the a human face to big international issues.