‘Daring to Drive’ illuminates Saudi woman’s life

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“Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening” (Simon & Schuster)), by Manal Al-Sharif

Beset by traffic, smog and other distractions, it’s easy to forget that driving a car is an act of free will, in theory transcending race, class and gender.

Then imagine what life would be like if women weren’t allowed to drive.  Need to go to the hospital?  No.  Pick up kids after work?  No.  Visit family or friends?  No.  The only options are call a driver or wait for a male relative.

Manal Al-Sharif illuminates the insidious nature of that reality in Saudi Arabia.  “Daring to Drive” is a brave, extraordinary, heartbreakingly personal story of one woman’s battle for equal rights, told through the minute details of an everyday life that boiled over after years of frustrations.

The book provides a rare glimpse into Saudi society, and especially into the lives and emotions of women.  Rules — especially for women — are everywhere, and so are the punishments for breaking them.  “Every public and most private spaces were saturated with radical books, brochures, and cassette sermons … (and) these pieces of religious propaganda were overwhelmingly intended to enforce the compliance of women,” she writes.

Al-Sharif’s father and mother beat her; teachers beat students; her husband beat her; and other men beat their wives, usually with few consequences.  Those passages are searingly painful to read, but Al-Sharif has the rare ability to put her suffering in context.

The book ends with a blow-by-blow account of her arrest in May 2011 as part of a larger protest against a driving ban.  That November she filed a lawsuit challenging the government refusal to give licenses to women.  Soon afterward leading religious scholars warned that doing so would lead to a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.  The experts proclaimed that “within ten years there would be no more virgins” in the country if women were allowed to drive.

Al-Sharif presents a valuable and honest look into the hearts and minds of people who live in a society that is mostly off-limits to Westerners.  Her literary achievement is that despite the huge cultural differences, “Daring to Drive” shows that Saudi women and men have dreams and fears much like our own. (AP)