This book is quite a compelling read. It’s about a woman who fights poverty and misogyny in Saudi Arabia. The first word which comes to my mind is otherworldly. It gives an insight into what growing up and life is like as a poor woman in Saudi Arabia. Even though I’m a Muslim myself and was raised that way, a lot of traditions which are common in Saudi Arabia are alien to me.
Manal grew up in the holy city of Mecca. She was born in 1979, the year fundamentalism took hold in Saudi Arabia. Manal was raised to be religiously conservative and turned into a right Salafist, before she started gradually turning into a feminist. As Manal says, she only became an activist by accident.
One example of how things got dealt with in Saudi Arabia was this. When she was a little girl, a twelve-year-old boy asked her to take off her underwear. Once Manal’s mother found out about it, she and her sister weren’t allowed to leave the house anymore. Every aspect of a female’s life is policed in Saudi Arabia and the woman takes the blame for a man’s wrongdoing, Manal’s life was no exception there, unfortunately.
Education was very important to her mother, and she made it a number one priority for her kids as well. University changed Manal’s Salafist views little by little. She got exposed to a larger variety of young people. In a society where boys and girls are strictly separated, some dared to have romantic telephone relationships. Yes, telephone relationships! Still a Salafist, Manal reacted with shock to a friend not covering her face with a niqab and couldn’t imagine being friends with a girl, who showed off her face. The internet then exposed her to opinions of people outside of Saudi Arabia. As they were questioning Salafism, she started to question it, too. And when September 11th happened, Manal was done with Salafism.
After university, she got an internship at Aramco, the biggest Saudi oil company. Life in the Aramco compound is very different from life in the rest of Saudi Arabia. There are American style wooden houses with large windows, public gardens, and the women’s hair was uncovered. Everyone was allowed to move freely, a large contrast to the streets of Mecca. As she resided there, Manal got used to more and more freedom.
In 2009, Manal took part in an exchange programme. She was headed to the USA, and lived there for a year. There she explored her freedom in many ways. Manal took a driving test and obtained her driver’s licence which she took back to Saudi Arabia then. When she was back, it was hard to accept the discrimination any longer. She realised – after being outside of the country and experiencing a different way of life – that it was Saudi society itself which she had to take on. Living abroad had changed Manal. She didn’t care so much about what people thought of her any longer. An incident of violent harassment on the street led to the driving protest. Manal was in need of a taxi and was making her way to a mall to catch it from there. A driver insulted her and started following her. She only got rid of him by hurling a stone at his car. When venting to a colleague about it the next day, he made her aware of the fact, that it wasn’t illegal for women to drive at all. Manal spent the night researching the traffic code and when she realised that this was accurate, it enraged her even more. This led to the decision that for her next birthday she’d do the unthinkable and dare to drive.
Manal and some friends started a group called Women2Drive. The aim was to organise a day where as many Saudi women as possible would dare to drive. To win supporters, the campaign started organising driving lessons. But there was still a lot of backlash. Manal thought the best way of silencing this, was to prove, that it was possible to drive on Saudi streets as a woman. She decided to film herself driving a month before the event was planned.
When Manal uploaded the clip at night, she didn’t expect the feedback that it caused. It became the most watched video in Saudi Arabia and one of the top videos in the world. Half of the comments in the comment section were insults. Men started contacting Manal at work to voice their disapproval and threaten her. She was starting to feel scared of being hurt, so she requested some time off from work. Even her manager knew about the video and gave her the unsolicited advice to be careful with the things that she was doing. She ought to think about her family and her job. At night, the secret police knocked on Manal’s door and she was detained. Only when her father and the chief of their tribe petition to the king, she was released, showing that the freedom of a woman is a negotiation between men.
Even though women are allowed to drive now since summer, the situation in Saudi Arabia hasn’t gotten any better. The crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has proven to be ruthless, he doesn’t shy away from taking lives to manifest his power. The insight into a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia was super interesting, but also horrifying at the same time. The recent events over there suggest, that the only way to rid the society of patriarchy, is to free the people from monarchy. There’s no negotiation with a despot.
Now, I know, there’s too much money involved for any Western country to tilt the ship. This is how Saudi Arabia makes friends, they buy their loyalty, which can be seen by the reaction of a lot of Arab countries to the Khashoggi murder. And Trump’s reaction. A few months ago, the media was talking about a “revolution from above”, because the crown prince was allowing a few liberties, which really were just a drop in the ocean. And that they were unthinkable a few years ago, does not make them any bigger.
The crown prince’s vision is to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and diversify the economy. Why is that? Well, oil will run out in around 20 years. So, to consolidate his power, there needs to be a shift in how money comes in. Have a look at Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 to read about the details of how the diversification should work. The crown prince has realised that part of it must be to invite more women into the workforce, so of course, they need to be liberated in a controlled manner. The male guardianship still controls women, and there is no end in sight to this perverted system of keeping women shackled.
Everything the House of Saud does, is to preserve power. Whether it is the active spread of Salafism in the past, or the recent arrests of activists and journalists. One dare to think, that Manal’s journey might have gone very different, if she still was to live in Saudi Arabia (she lives with her second husband in Australia now). The activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who also defied the ban to drive in the past, is a political prisoner right now. So, make no mistake about those reforms, the aim is again to keep the House of Saud in power.
Manal’s memoir is an exciting read of a young Muslim woman who stood up to an entire kingdom. It will give you a good understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Her conclusion is hopeful, but (I was going to link to her twitter account here, but unfortunately, it has been deleted. I’m a bit confused by this!)
Please also read Exploring the new Saudi Arabia from the inside for a European female view of the changes, that have taken place in Saudi Arabia. It has a paragraph in there as well about why Khashoggi left the kingdom.