In September, Saudi Arabia lifted a long-running national policy that banned women from driving. Overnight, Saudi Arabian women took a small if significant step toward equality.
The lift on the restriction has been cited as an example of the modernization efforts of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (The crown prince is also busily consolidated power: A state anti-corruption committee arrested a group of high-powered ministers and businessmen last week.) But activist women have been campaigning for the right to drive for years. Though driving by women is not technically illegal, it has been banned in practice. Many have risked arrest and imprisonment by defiantly driving and using social media to bring attention to the cause.
Manal al-Sharif is an activist at the forefront of this movement. On May 21, 2011, al-Sharif filmed herself driving while her brother sat in the car’s passenger’s seat in Khobar. Al-Sharif had been promoting the Women2Drive campaign on social media and had already posted a video of herself driving on YouTube a few days earlier. The next day at 2 am, she was arrested and interrogated by police. She was held in jail for nine days, and released only after her father appealed directly to the king. Al-Sharif continued to advocate for women’s rights in the years following her arrest.
The following excerpt from al-Sharif’s new book Daring to Drive recounts the night of her arrest.
The secret police came for me at 2 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 5-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.
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 townhouse 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. When they finally left, they were still so excited and happy — and so was I, thinking, Well, now no one can stop us.
A few hours later, it was 2 am 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 behind the door, my brother began pushing back. “Don’t you realize it’s 2 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.”
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 5-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 20 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.
I composed myself, walked downstairs, and opened the door. Not everyone outside was a stranger. I recognized one man, Fahad, as an Aramco official [Aramco is the Saudi Arabian national petroleum company where I worked]; 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.
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 20 years old. It was the Backstreet Boys’ “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” and I still remember almost every word.
I learned the proper rules of driving when I was working and living in the States — I got a New Hampshire and then a Massachusetts driver’s license. But in Saudi Arabia, I never got behind the wheel, except inside the Aramco compound. Saudi women rely on drivers, usually foreign men, some of whom have never taken a driving test or had any kind of professional instruction, to ferry them from place to place. We are at their mercy. Some families are wealthy enough to employ their own personal driver, but many women rely on an informal network of men with cars who illegally transport female passengers. Women carry lists of these private drivers in their phones, and we call and call until we find one who’s available. My friends would text me if they found a clean taxi driver, and I would text them.
Almost every woman I know has been harassed by a driver. They make comments about our appearance or about conversations they overhear; they demand more money; they touch you inappropriately. Some women have been attacked. I’ve had drivers make all sorts of inappropriate comments and tape my calls when I’ve used my cell phone, even drivers who don’t speak Arabic, thinking maybe they could blackmail or extort me. Then there are the cases of drivers who sexually molest the children they are hired to drive to and from school.
I had chosen to go that 2 am with the men at my door. But Fahad, the Aramco government affairs man, the person who had promised to bring me home, who had told me over and over that we were going to the Dhahran police station, had lied. But I couldn’t call him a liar to his face. Instead, in what I hoped was a calm voice, I asked where we were going. He had said the Dhahran police station, I reminded him.
He brushed off my question, saying, “Yeah, yeah. Well, they waited so long at Dhahran and you didn’t come, so now they’ve asked for you to go to the Khobar police station.”
Inside the station, everyone was nice to me at first — even solicitous. The man from the police station started off by saying that they didn’t want to scare me, and he began with the simplest of questions: “You are Manal al-Sharif?” I nodded. Then he turned to my brother and asked him some questions as well.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed. Eventually, a young man entered and offered me a sandwich and orange juice, but I refused to eat. I tried to cooperate with the questioning as much as I could, hoping that they’d get what they needed and let me go home to my son.
There was a second man in the room, sitting behind a desk. He too began to speak. He wanted to know who was behind the Women2Drive group, of which I was the public face and one of the leaders, and also whom I had spoken with in the foreign press. He asked me about my relationship with Wajeha al-Huwaider, the woman who had filmed me driving. Wajeha was a well-known activist in Saudi Arabia, but I had no idea about the depths of her troubled relationship with the government. The second man would ask me questions, and then the first man would ask me questions, over and over. I kept smiling the whole time.
All of a sudden, the man behind the desk closed the interrogation file. He looked at me and said something very much like, “Come on, Manal. You know the king is going through a very difficult time with the Arab Spring and all the things that are happening in the region. Why would you add more burdens to the king? Don’t you love the king?” And there right in front of me was the king’s picture, staring down at me with that half-smile.
In Saudi Arabia, your patriotism is measured by how much you love the king. The king is revered like a father, and we are considered his daughters and sons. And out of all the Saudi kings, Abdullah is the king I have loved instead of feared. He is the only one to start opening doors for women, to speak up for women or to allow more freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So it was not hard for me to tell the interrogator, “No, of course, I love King Abdullah so much. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would cause him any more burdens.”
The interrogator nodded and said that the problem wasn’t so much with me driving, it was with me posting my video on YouTube and talking to the foreign media and causing so much fuss.
I tried to follow his lead and started apologizing. I told him that if my participation in the Women2Drive campaign was what was causing all these problems, I’d just stop. I told him that I never imagined I’d have all these problems with officials, and I was so sorry. My purpose, I added, “was not to inconvenience anyone.”
He nodded and then left. My brother and I were alone. Fahad, the Aramco guy, was already gone. Just as the first interrogator had finished, Fahad had stuck his head into the room and said: “I think you’re fine now. Sorry, I have to go to work. It’s 7 am and I have to report to my office.” He told me we could take a taxi back, or call him and he would come pick us up.
I sat in silence with my brother, texting the girls who were putting up the feeds on Twitter. I asked them to please stop tweeting about me and my arrest, telling them that I did not want any more attention. It was just something minor, I added, just the video that was the problem. I would be released soon.
About 30 minutes passed and then another man came in. The first thing he did was order my brother to leave. My brother was swiftly escorted out and, in his place, they ushered in a woman. She was called the prison guard. No name, just “the prison guard.” She was fully veiled in a black abaya and black niqab with black shoes, black socks, and black gloves on her hands. Even her bag was black. I couldn’t even see a glimpse of her face, just a thin slash through the cloth where the whites of her eyes glowed.
She sat next to me, saying nothing. Her gloves were so old and worn that there were holes in the fabric and along the seams where the threads had come loose. I could see down to her dark skin. Her bag was old too, battered, with a strap that was barely hanging on. But then I stopped looking at her because the new interrogator was not done.
He took my bag with my wallet, my cell phone, and everything I had. My papers and my identity were gone. Even my ability to tell time was gone; there was no clock in the room. On any other morning, I would know when my neighbors began to move about their houses, when the Aramco buses would begin their morning loops around the smooth asphalt streets of the compound. I would know when my 5-year-old son woke up. On this morning when he opened his eyes, he would discover that his mother was gone.
Now I was truly frightened.
Manal al-Sharif spent the next nine days in jail, where she was interrogated, called a traitor and a spy, and strip-searched. Following her release, she continues to advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
From DARING TO DRIVE: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal Al-Sharif. Copyright © 2017 by Manal Al-Sharif. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Manal al-Sharif is a women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia who was imprisoned in 2011 for driving a car. She has been lauded by Foreign Policy, Time, Forbes, and the Oslo Freedom Forum.