Inside the walls of segregation and oppression dictating the lives of Saudi women.
Arrested and imprisoned for “driving while female” in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 2011, Saudi author and activist al-Sharif, formerly an information security expert at the Aramco oil company, chronicles her long path to feminist activism within a deeply conservative Islamic culture. From forced circumcision at age 8, condoned by her largely uneducated parents, to extreme segregation between the sexes in her poor community of Mecca, including separate entrances, covered windows, high walls, and the necessity for a guardian or close male relative to accompany women anywhere and sign any legal documents, the author found emancipation very gradually, a process she compares to the experience of those involved in the American civil rights movement. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, the dictates of religious culture, rather than law, were and are iron-clad regarding women; al-Sharif required the permission of her father to pursue everything from education at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah (considered a scandalously “liberal, progressive city”) to her first job at Aramco (the only IT woman employed during her 10 years there) to marriage. The author’s decision to drive emerged from a long frustration with getting around via hired drivers and costly taxis, as all Saudi women were consigned to do: in a kind of perverse logic, al-Sharif had bought a car for her hired driver to use. Yet after a liberating work trip in America, where she got an actual license, she convinced her brother to help her drive and sympathetic women friends to video the great moment behind the wheel, which led to her arrest and harassment by the religious police. Ultimately, al-Sharif’s appalling conclusion is that, in her country, “if you want to race with men, you’d have to do it with your hands and legs cut off.”
An intimate and powerful book from what is hopefully only the first of many Saudi voices to speak out.