Daring to drive, p.1

Daring to Drive, page 1


Daring to Drive

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Daring to Drive

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  Chapter 1

  A Country of One King and Millions of Queens

  Chapter 2

  Cockroaches and Prison Bars

  Chapter 3

  Dirty Girls

  Chapter 4

  Mecca under Siege

  Chapter 5

  Behind the Veil

  Chapter 6

  My Barbie Is Murdered

  Chapter 7

  The Forbidden Satellite Dish

  Chapter 8

  Employed and Homeless

  Chapter 9

  Love and the Falafel Man

  Chapter 10

  Live Free or Die

  Chapter 11

  Driving while Female

  Chapter 12

  In the Kingdom of Saudi Men

  Chapter 13

  Abouya and the King

  Chapter 14

  The Rain Begins with a Single Drop


  About the Author

  To Mama & Abouya:

  Sorry that we have not been thankful for everything you gave us or taught us;

  we didn’t know it was all you had.

  To Abdalla and Hamza:

  Question the rules, not yourself.

  To the forty-seven women drivers of 1990:

  You are my idols.

  “The best of you are those who are best to the women.”

  —PROPHET MUHAMMAD, Peace Be Upon Him

  “Don’t be afraid. Fear won’t prevent death, it prevents life.”


  “My problem isn’t forgetting, my real problem is having excessive memories.”



  * * *

  * * *

  A Country of One King and Millions of Queens

  * * *

  * * *

  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.

  My town house was not in the holy city of Mecca, my childhood home of twisted streets and thronging pilgrims, off-limits to all non-Muslims. Nor was it set amid the gleaming towers and sky bridges of the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, high on a desert plateau. It was tucked in perhaps the most Western enclave in the entire kingdom, the pristine Aramco (Saudi Arabian Oil Company) compound in the Eastern Province, originally designed by Americans working for John D. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, which had helped found Aramco. Today, Aramco is the Saudi state oil company and the world’s largest daily exporter of oil, sitting atop 260 billion barrels of petroleum reserves. It is also the world’s wealthiest company, with a net worth estimated as high as $2.5 trillion. And it was my employer. When the Americans sold Aramco to the Saudis in the 1970s and 1980s, part of the agreement required the Saudis to continue to employ women.

  The Aramco compound has long been a world unto itself. With lush green golf courses, lawns, palm trees, parks, and swimming pools, it looks very much like a perfect Southern California town. Inside the gates of Aramco, Saudi rules do not apply. Men and women mix together. Women do not have to be veiled or covered. We celebrated holidays like Halloween, when everyone dresses up in costumes. And unlike every other place in Saudi Arabia, inside the Aramco compound, women can drive. There are no prohibitions, no restrictions. They simply slip behind the wheel and start the engine. And there are protections. Not even the local city police or the Saudi religious police are allowed to venture onto Aramco-controlled land. Aramco has its own security and fire departments. It handles its matters internally, like a separate, sovereign state inside the Saudi kingdom.

  But the Saudi secret police, I learned that night, could still enter.

  I turned to face the sliding glass doors at the edge of my living room. Unlike the traditional Saudi way of covering one’s house the way most families cover their women, I have never liked curtains. I always wanted the light streaming in. Now one of the men stood with his face pressed against the bare glass, his damp breath spreading like fog before the dry desert air sucked it back up again. He said nothing, and he did not move. Only his eyes slowly scanned my room. That night, he did not move from that glass door, did not release his face the entire time. Like the others, he was dressed in civilian clothes. That, however, is the hallmark of the secret police. They do not wear uniforms. They do not even identify themselves as police. They have other jobs, other identities. Yet they are woven through society at every level, and their sole purpose is to inform. They are employed by the kingdom to monitor citizens and to enforce the rules.

  From behind the door, my brother began pushing back. “Don’t you realize it’s two in the morning? People are asleep here. Besides, we’ve only just come from the Thuqbah traffic police station.” He wanted to imply that the matter had already been resolved. But there was no reply.

  My brother paused and then raised his voice a little louder. “Who are you people? Unless you have an arrest warrant, we won’t leave. If you want something, come back in the morning. You don’t show up in the middle of the night and talk about bringing us to the police.”

  This was an understatement. In Saudi Arabia, our legal code is referred to not as “laws,” which devout Saudi Muslims believe can be given only by Allah; we use another word that translates into English roughly as “system.” The system says that no one can be arrested for a minor crime between the hours of sunset and sunrise. The same system also says that you cannot arrest anyone without a statement from a judge, unless the authorities consider you a threat to national security. But the men outside said nothing. After a few minutes had passed, they started knocking again.

  I was standing now in my living room, wearing sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. I had nowhere else to go. It was a small house: a living room, a tiny galley kitchen, one bedroom, and a balcony, all of 750 square feet. Enough for my five-year-old son and me. I was divorced; under Saudi rules, without a husband, my father was my official male guardian. I could not work, attend school, or travel without his permission. But he lived in Jeddah, on the other side of the country.

  I didn’t know if the men could force open the door and come in and take me. I still didn’t even know exactly who “they” were, but I realized I had to tell someone what was happening. I dialed a female Saudi journalist. I’d reached out to her when I’d first become interested in proving that women could legally drive. Even though it was the middle of the night, she answered the phone and told me she’d get me a lawyer. She gave me the number the lawyer would be calling me from. A few minutes later my phone rang. A woman named Suad al-Shammari, who identified herself as a lawyer, was on the line. The first thing she told me was to record our phone call, so I recorded the call with my iPhone as we spoke.

  “Who are they?” she asked. “Are they religious police? Representatives from the traffic police? Do they have any kind of warrant?”

  I told her that I didn’t know. “They’re still outside knocking,” I said.

  Suad talked with me for nearly twenty minutes. She told me that unless these men were from the national security division and I was wanted as a terrorist, they weren’t allowed to come in the middle of the night and tell me to leave my home. She suggested I call the local police and ask if a warrant had been issued for my arrest. If there was no warrant, I should not go with them. “Send them away,” she said. “Don’t leave with them.” So, as I listened to the men rapping their fists against my front door, I dialed 999 to speak with the police. A man on the other end of the line assured me there was no warrant for my arrest.

  Almost as soon as I hung up, my phone rang again. This call was from Kholoud, a women’s rights activist, who had already been tweeting about my arrest the previous afternoon. In the confusion, I didn’t know that at that very moment one of my colleagues from Aramco, Omar al-Johani, was hiding behind a bush very close to my house. He had read Kholoud’s tweets about my arrest and knew the street where I lived. He drove around until he saw the cars and the security guards. Now he was tweeting about the men surrounding my door. Kholoud was following him online. “Manal,” she said calmly, “I want you to do something. I want you to go with these guys. It will bring them shame if we announce that they’ve taken you from your house in the middle of the night. This is a violation of your rights. We should expose them.”

  I didn’t like the idea of going anywhere with these people. I didn’t want to leave my son and I still didn’t know exactly who was outside. But I kept thinking about what Kholoud had said. I decided to pray. I went upstairs. In the hallway leading to my small bedroom. I performed two raka’as (the full cycle of an Islamic prayer, spoken while standing, sitting, and prostrating) and asked for God to show me the way. It was now nearly four in the morning. In a little over an hour the sky would be streaked with the first hint of desert sun. I felt something inside me say, “Go, Manal. You’ll be okay.”

  I composed myself, walked downstairs, and opened the door. Not everyone outside was a stranger. I recognized one man, Fahad, as an Aramco official; he held up his company ID card as proof. He started speaking to me but the whole time his eyes and his face were turned away, so that he was looking only at my brother. “We just need you to come to the Dhahran police station,” he said. “You’ll sign some papers and then be released. I am a colleague, so you can trust me. I will be there with you, I will not leave you. I will bring you back.”

  I didn’t trust him. I called Aramco security. The man on the other end assured me, “This guy works for us. He will escort you to the police station.” My brother insisted upon accompanying me as well, although all the men outside wanted me to go alone, without him, which should have convinced me that something was wrong. In Saudi society, a woman needs her official guardian (usually her father or husband) or a mahram—a close male family relative whom she cannot marry, such as a father, brother, uncle, or even a son—to accompany her on any official business.

  Even a woman in labor will not be admitted into a hospital without her guardian or at least a mahram. Police cannot enter a home during a robbery, and firefighters are forbidden from entering a home during a fire or medical emergency if a woman is inside but does not have a mahram present. In 2014, Amna Bawazeer died on the campus of King Saud University when school officials refused to allow male paramedics to enter the female-only school after Amna collapsed from a heart ailment. The same story repeated itself in 2016 at Qaseem University when male paramedics were not allowed on campus to treat a female student, Dhuha Almane, who subsequently died. It is not a stretch to say that death is preferable to violating the strict code of guardianship and mahrams.

  I went back inside and put on my abaya, the swirling black cloak that covered my entire body, except for my hands and the tips of my feet, as well as a hijab, a head scarf, that covered my hair, my ears, and my neck, everything except my face. Then I made one last phone call to Atika Shubert, a female reporter for CNN based in London, who had interviewed me a week earlier. Atika promised that she’d put the news that I’d been taken from my home on CNN’s international website. If she did that, I trusted that I would not simply disappear.

  I walked out holding my brother’s arm, I hadn’t even looked at my sleeping little boy or kissed him goodbye. I wanted to believe that this was a formality, that I’d be back in time to wake him, feed him breakfast, get him to school, and then head to work. At most, I told myself, I would only be gone a couple of hours. At this time of night, it was less than ten minutes from the Aramco compound to the Dhahran police station.

  As soon as I stepped outside I counted the people there. There were nine of them: seven men, two women, and five cars. Once I passed through the doorway, the two women—fema
le Aramco guards, fully covered except for a small slit for their eyes—muscled in beside me. I knew they worked for Aramco because over their abayas they were wearing the company’s standard issue khaki-colored coats with a large badge on the chest. They were most likely part of the contingent of female guards who manned the checkpoint at the women’s gate into the compound. When veiled women entered Aramco, these guards were the ones who uncovered their faces to verify the women’s identities. They could gaze upon any other woman’s face, know her identity, without ever revealing their own.

  They walked uncomfortably close, as if they were ready to grab me and hold me down if I tried to escape. I got into the back of one of the cars—not a police car but an Aramco company car. The women didn’t follow me in. I was alone, except for two men. My brother sat in the front, and Fahad, the Aramco official, drove. No one spoke. I looked out the window at the blackness, felt the car hum along the road. Five minutes passed, then ten. I could make out none of the familiar landmarks in Dhahran. We were not heading into the city. We were driving east. Everything else left my mind except for one question: “Where are you taking us?”

  I never set out to be an activist. I was a religious girl, born and raised in Mecca. I started covering myself with abayas and niqabs before it was even required, simply because I wanted to emulate and please my religious teachers. And I believed in a highly fundamentalist version of Islam. For years, I melted my brother’s pop music cassette tapes in the oven because in fundamentalist Islam, music is considered haram, meaning forbidden. The first time I ever heard a song, I was twenty years old. It was the Backstreet Boys’ “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” and I still remember almost every word.

  The only thing I did at a young age that was somewhat rebellious was to get a job. I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and I was hired by Aramco as an information security specialist. I got married young, at age twenty-four, and had a son. Then I got divorced, which is fairly common; some published statistics estimate that the divorce rate inside Saudi Arabia is as high as sixty percent. Both my parents were divorced when they married. But once I turned thirty, I started to do daring things on my birthdays. On my thirtieth birthday, I was working in the United States, in New Hampshire, and I went skydiving. The next year, I bought a ticket to Puerto Rico and spent thirty-six hours traveling alone. And back in Saudi Arabia in 2011, when I turned thirty-two, I decided that I would start driving.

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