On Thursday, May 19, 2011, Manal al-Sharif woke early, made herself a strong coffee, dressed conservatively and called a friend, the activist/writer Wajeha al-Huwaider, about going for a drive that would change her life.

Days later, she would be jailed. After filming her morning drive, al-Sharif uploaded the video to YouTube and became the reluctant leader of a movement to support the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where they cannot.

But al-Sharif says this ban isn't about upholding the law - there is, she claims, no law preventing women from driving in Saudi Arabia - only hardline traditions. In her autobiography Daring to Drive, released this month and sub-titled A Saudi
Woman's Awakening
, she explores how she went from religious radical - she once melted her younger brother's cassettes in the oven because music was haram (forbidden by Islamic law) - to human rights activist.

Now living with her second husband and youngest son in Australia, al-Sharif asks throughout her book, "how can a country advance and prosper when half its population is not free?" She details the extent to which Saudi women's lives are controlled, not by religion but by interpretations of these teachings and the cultural traditions that have developed as a result.


No matter what her age, a Saudi woman must have an official guardian - usually her father or husband - who grants permission for her to go to school, get a job or leave the country and accompanies her on any sort of official business.

Women are banned from driving and must rely on male relatives or paid drivers for transport. Al-Sharif says almost every woman she knows has been sexually harassed by a driver or, because it can be a daily struggle to find one, put in danger trying to get from one place to another. Early in her book, she describes how she attempted to walk at dusk, in a city that's not pedestrian-friendly, and was followed. She was terrified she was about to be abducted.

"It is an amazing contradiction: a society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone."

As an educated and well-travelled woman, it is understandable al-Sharif became frustrated by constant social contradictions and restrictions. As she points out, photography is banned yet the king's picture is ubiquitous; the internet and satellite TV is outlawed but available to some; women and men are not supposed to socialise together.

"Then you'd turn on the TV and see the Saudi king shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher," she says.

Born and raised in Mecca, the second daughter of a taxi driver and a Libyan mother from Egypt, al-Sharif spent her girlhood trying to be devout but always felt weighed down by guilt that she wasn't pious enough.

Subjected to female genital mutilation as a young girl, she struggled to comprehend how her parents could put her and her sister through something so traumatic for the sake of upholding tradition. Reflecting on a troubled childhood, she acknowledges she was always something of a rebel.

A good student and keen reader, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, was a favourite book. She adored the feisty Jo March: "To me, she was amazing. She was a writer, rebellious and aspired to be independent. Jo did what boys did. She wasn't supposed to ride a bicycle wearing her big dress, but she took the bicycle and rode it anyway."

Winning a scholarship to university, al-Sharif's eyes soon opened to a more liberated world. After graduation, she worked for Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil company, where, in an expansive desert compound, the rules of Saudi society were not as strictly applied. Women, for example, could drive there.

The more she saw, including during a posting to the US, the more exasperated al-Sharif became. She writes of witnessing "small, personal" freedoms, like seeing people relaxing by reading in public or friends watching their daughters play basketball - indeed women participating in sports - and feeling saddened by opportunities that passed her by.

At home, she could be called a slut for chatting with male colleagues, had to be chaperoned by her teenage brother on a business trip and, though she kept a car in her garage, couldn't drive outside the Aramco compound.

As her frustrations grew, she decided to tackle what she thought would be a small step forward: lobbying for women's rights. When she filmed herself that May morning, al-Sharif was already a member of Facebook group, Women2Drive, calling for women to start driving in Saudi Arabia with a rally planned for June 17, 2011.

She wanted her act of civil disobedience to be a spur for the movement's June action - but she never expected the reaction she got. Within days, the video received more than 700,000 views, with people as far away as Australia commenting (they couldn't work out what all the fuss was about).

Al-Sharif was taken into custody days later and spent a week in a crowded jail. Political commentators declared that the right to drive campaign was part of the wider Arab Spring awakening and Saudi authorities cracked down on her because of their own fears of protest.

In turn, she believes social media, and the pressure friends maintained for her release, probably spared her from being left in jail. Denounced in Saudi Arabia and lauded around the rest of the world, she made global lists, the likes of Time magazine and Forbes, of influential people; she received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

Accepting public speaking engagements cost her job and al-Sharif began to feel increasingly nervous about staying in Saudi Arabia. She eventually moved with her second husband to Dubai, but that cost her dearly.

Although she can visit her older son, she is forbidden to take him out of Saudi Arabia where he lives with his father's family. She cannot bring her younger son into Saudi, so the two half-brothers have never met.

Having told her story - about five years in the making - al-Sharif intends to use a percentage of any profits to pay for driving lessons for Saudi women who, living outside their country, want to learn to drive.

The night before al-Sharif spoke with Weekend, she'd watched the film Suffragette, about UK women obtaining the right to vote. She sees clear similarities between those women and her counterparts in Saudi Arabia, saying women will keep lobbying for change and, one day, it will come.

Daring to drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening
by Manal al-Sharif
(Simon & Schuster, $33)