For One Saudi Woman, 'Daring To Drive' Was An Act Of Civil Disobedience

Jun 8, 2017

Manal al-Sharif's path to activism began simply enough: In 2011, the Saudi woman filmed herself driving a car, then uploaded the video to YouTube. Ordinarily such a video might not get much notice, but because it's not socially acceptable for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, where there is a de facto ban, Sharif's video went viral.

Sharif describes driving as an act of civil disobedience: "For me, driving — or the right to drive — is not only about moving from A to B; it's a way to emancipate women," she says. "It gives them so much liberty. It makes them independent."

Initially arrested for driving, Sharif was released when her story elicited outrage from around the world. She now lives in Sydney, Australia, with her second husband and son.

Though she is no longer in Saudi Arabia, Sharif remains outspoken about women's rights: "When I see something wrong, I speak up," she says of her advocacy on behalf of Saudi women. "It should be the norm, not the exception." Her new memoir is Daring to Drive.


Interview Highlights

On the guardianship system for women in Saudi Arabia

We have the guardianship system and that is the one that imposes a lot of restrictions on me, as a woman. ... A woman cannot choose her guardian. So when you're born, your father is your guardian. When you get married, it moves to your husband. If you get divorced, it either moves back to your father if he's alive; if he's not alive, it could move back to your brother.

If you don't have a brother, it could move back to your adult son, as young as 18 years old. He could be your own guardian issuing you permissions ... for important things like going to school, getting a job, leaving the country, going to the court, even going to the police and complaining. They always ask for a man's consent and permission.

On why she decided to advocate for Saudi women's right to drive

I think it chose me. I didn't choose it. As a single mom, I was divorced with a son and I had a car and I had a driver's license, but I couldn't drive my car. I was paying the installments for this car for five years. That was very frustrating. I almost got kidnapped once because I couldn't find a car to take me back home.

It's a daily struggle to find a car to do anything in your life in a country where there's no public transportation and our cities are not pedestrian-friendly. It was a continuous struggle, and it was very empowering that I know how to drive. I have a car and I have a driver's license. When I knew that there is no law, I was thinking, "Well, if there's no law, so why are not driving?" It was accumulating, it didn't just happen overnight.

On Saudi women's reliance on foreign drivers

[Private drivers] get paid around $500 a month. No Saudi would accept this salary, and no Saudi will be 24/7 available ... to drive you around. ... [Drivers] work long hours with you, because they drop the kids at school, they drop you at work, when you need to go for grocery shopping, all these things — you will not find Saudis accepting these jobs.

The private sector itself in Saudi Arabia, 90 percent of the people working there are non-Saudis, so also the contradictions here make me mad, because you don't allow me to mix with Saudis or men in general all my life, but then you enforce a perfect stranger to be living in my house, to be driving my own car and have my own phone number. ...

Most of them don't even know how to drive! My first driver, I had to teach him how to drive. He didn't even know the signs. ... He didn't know the city. He didn't speak Arabic.

On how her protest helped inspire others to drive

I know a girl, she's 14 years old. She's so young, but in Saudi Arabia, you can drive as a boy as young as 14 years old. She dressed like a boy and I met her mom and I met her other sister, and they said [the police] stopped her so many times and they found out she's a girl, and she would plead with the police officer and explain to him that she doesn't have anyone. But she continued driving.

She always posted videos of herself driving, and that was amazing. She said, "We never thought of buying a car, because we were three girls in the house," — they don't have a man — "until we saw you driving."

Her mom ... kept saying, "Don't stop." Her daughter said, "They stole Mom's life. We'll not allow them to steal my life."

On the hard-line views she encountered as a student

In the '80s in Saudi Arabia, you were radicalized. We were radicalized in the '80s and the '90s. There was one source of information, the books were censored and we had all these wars going on around in the Islamic world. ... I was brought up in this era or in this time. ... We've been through this. ... Destroying our photos, stopping everyone from listening to music, questioning the beliefs of the others, the hate against the infidels, we were brought up this way. ...

I always questioned them, even when I was practicing to be a "good Muslim" and I was trying to please God and stay away from hellfire and go to heaven, I was still questioning these things. I wasn't really happy. The more I was trying to follow the rules we had been taught, the more miserable I became.

On undergoing female genital mutilation as a girl

The one, really, who circumcised us was a barber. He was my father's friend. My mom herself was circumcised and she told us the story that she ran away when they cut one labia and the other one they couldn't cut, and she was bleeding and she hid in the neighbor's house.

It was shocking to me that [my] mom, she put us through the same thing. But the pressure from the society is huge ... that a mother and a father can put their own daughters through so much pain just to abide by the society rules. This is how dangerous it is, that your own children, you put them through so much pain because you need to be obedient. ...

I think the worst was not the pain, the worst is losing trust in the people you love. ... It's very difficult even to talk about today. ... They didn't explain to us what was going to happen. ... These things bother me so much, that we put women through this pain, because it's all about controlling us.

On the risks she faces when she goes back to Saudi Arabia to visit her son from her first marriage

I'm always worried, every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I'm always worried, because you never know when you'll get arrested again, for a tweet or a retweet or something that I said in an interview like I'm doing now with you, something that slipped. So you have to always have this filter going on the whole time you talk.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's busy preparing for tomorrow's onstage interview with Seth Meyers, which we hope to broadcast next Wednesday. We're going to hear the interview she recorded yesterday about women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where there are restrictions on women's ability to do nearly anything unless they're given permission by a male guardian.

In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, our guest, Manal al-Sharif, challenged the Saudi ban on women driving. At the time, she was the first woman to work in the information security division at Aramco, the Saudi national oil company. She lived on the Aramco compound where Saudi rules don't apply. So she was allowed to drive on the compound, not outside of it.

She organized a mass protest against the driving ban, and on a day leading up to it, she posted a YouTube video of herself at the wheel, driving outside the compound. The video went viral, and she was arrested. After expressions of outrage from around the world, she was released. She now lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and son.

She has a new memoir called "Daring To Drive." It's about growing up in Mecca, becoming a devout Islamic fundamentalist in her early teens and evolving into a women's rights activist.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Manal al-Sharif, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your driving protest, would you describe some of the major restrictions on women's rights in Saudi Arabia?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: So we have the guardianship system, and that is the one that employs a lot of restriction on me as a woman. Imagine giving birth to your own guardian. Yes, your guardian can be your own son. And that means...

GROSS: So a guardian has to be a man.

AL-SHARIF: Yes, only a man

GROSS: And it could be your son (laughter).

AL-SHARIF: Any man.

GROSS: Any man.

AL-SHARIF: It could be any man.

GROSS: OK.

AL-SHARIF: So when you buy a car and there is a registration paper for the owner, this car, when you sell it - the registration - the owner on the registration paper change - exactly woman change her guardian throughout her life. So that's the first one. And because if the guardianship...

GROSS: Wait. So you change your guardian the way you would change the registration for a car.

AL-SHARIF: Exactly.

GROSS: So you actually have to sign a paper saying, I designate this person as my guardian.

AL-SHARIF: It's not - no. You don't choose. I wish you choose.

GROSS: Oh.

AL-SHARIF: A woman cannot choose her guardian. So when you're born, your father is your guardian. When you get married, it moves to your husband. If you get divorced, it either moves back to your father if he's alive. If he's not alive, it could move back to your brother. If you don't have a brother, it could move back to your adult son, as young as 18 years old. He could be your own guardian, issuing you permissions to do anything in your life.

GROSS: When you say anything in your life, what does the guardian have to give you permission to do? What are some of things?

AL-SHARIF: Important things like going to school, getting a job, leaving the country, getting - going to the court and filing a - even going to the police and issuing - and complaining. They always ask for a man consent and permission.

GROSS: What about just leaving the house?

AL-SHARIF: You need his permission.

GROSS: To leave the house?

AL-SHARIF: Yes. If you don't get his permission - if you want to leave the house, you need to give him - you need to tell him that I'm leaving the house. You cannot just leave without taking his permission.

GROSS: OK. What are some of the other restrictions, not - like, this is kind of everything already, but what are some of the other restrictions on women's rights?

AL-SHARIF: The one that we're famous for - we're the last country that don't allow women to drive. We don't play sports. We don't have sports in the school, so women cannot play sports in Saudi Arabia. You cannot, for example, swim in public. You cannot go to a swimming pool and swim or go to the beach and swim. You cannot do this.

GROSS: Do you have to use special entrances in public buildings, like women's entrances?

AL-SHARIF: Yes, yes. So all the government organizations, all the banks, even the mosques, most of our homes who can afford it - they have separate entrances for men and women because the segregation between the sexes. All schools, all colleges, everything almost, you cannot have men and women mix.

GROSS: OK. And we've just, like, scratched the surface of all the restrictions. There's many more, I'm sure.

AL-SHARIF: Many more.

GROSS: So of all the restrictions on women's rights, why did you choose to protest the taboo against driving?

AL-SHARIF: Interesting question. I think it chose me. I didn't choose it. As a single mom, I was divorced with a son. And I had a car. And I had a driver license, but I couldn't drive my car. And I was paying the installments for this car for five years, and that was very frustrating. It's a daily struggle to find a car, to do anything in your life in a country where there's no public transportation. And our cities are not pedestrian friendly. And when I knew that there is no law, I was thinking, if there's no law, so why are we not driving?

GROSS: So there isn't actually a law, but it's custom.

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: And it's an observed custom...

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: ...That women can't drive. And you learned how to drive because you were living on the compound of Aramco, where you're allowed to drive because the Saudi rules don't apply. And also, you had worked for at least a year in New Hampshire, and you got your driver's license there. So that's how you learned. So you were allowed to drive on the Aramco compound but not off the compound.

AL-SHARIF: The compound is inside Arabia. But once you leave the compound, all rules change. You have to put on your abaya. You cannot ride a bike or drive a car or mix with men. You cannot work with men even outside. In Aramco, we can do all these things. And the contradictions were really, really screaming when I was working there.

GROSS: So another thing - in talking about why you chose driving as your protest - your women's rights protest, you write in your memoir that Saudi women rely on foreign drivers to take them around. And why are these drivers foreign?

AL-SHARIF: In Saudi, we don't - when you need to hire a chauffeur or a private driver, we call them, you cannot hire another Saudi. They get paid around $500 a month. No Saudi would accept this salary. And no Saudi will be 24-by-7 available for you to drive you around. So the only way to do it is when you hire someone who would accept these low salaries. And they work long hours with you because dropping - they drop the kids in the school. They drop you in a work. They - when you need to go for grocery shopping - all these things. You will not find Saudis accepting these jobs.

Actually, the private sector itself in Saudi Arabia - 90 percent of the people working there are non-Saudis. So also the contradictions here are very - I would say make me mad because you don't allow me to mix with Saudis or men in general in all my life, but then you enforce a total - a perfect stranger to be living in my house, to be driving my own car and have my own phone number. And it's unfair for those drivers and unfair for us as women.

GROSS: And sounds like...

AL-SHARIF: Most of them - they don't even know how to drive.

GROSS: Oh, great (laughter). And it sounds like...

AL-SHARIF: I had to teach my first driver - I had to teach him how to drive. He didn't know even the signs. He didn't know the (laughter) - how to drive. He didn't know the city. He didn't speak Arabic. It was - it's a hassle for both sides, really. It's a hassle.

GROSS: And it also sounds like if you're sexually harassed by one of...

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: ...The drivers, the driver will not be punished because it's considered to be the woman's fault (laughter). So...

AL-SHARIF: Always, yes.

GROSS: Great, OK.

AL-SHARIF: What did you do to provoke him? Watch how you dress up. What did you say? It's always the woman fault.

GROSS: Right. So let's get back to your driving protest. So you've explained some of the reasons why you chose to protest the driving ban for women because you could drive. You were allowed to drive in the Aramco compound but not outside of it. In order to get around, you had to hire a driver who didn't necessarily speak your language, who you didn't know, who you weren't necessarily safe with. So the contradictions were just crazy. So what was the form of protest you chose to protest the ban on women driving?

AL-SHARIF: It's a very - it's a civil disobedience. So for me, driving or the right to drive is not only about moving from A to B. It's a way to emancipate women. It gives them so much liberty. It makes them independent, believe in their own ability to be able to take care and charge of their own life, to drive their own life.

GROSS: So if I understand correctly, more women are driving in Saudi Arabia even though they can get arrested for doing it.

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: OK, so you're really taking a big risk if you're a woman and you're...

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: ...Driving.

AL-SHARIF: Mostly - I know a girl. She's 14 years old. She's so young. But in Saudi Arabia, you can drive as a boy as young as 14 years old.

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

AL-SHARIF: She dress like a boy. She always posts videos of herself driving, and that was amazing. And she said, we never thought of buying a car because we were three girls in the house - they don't have a man - until we saw you driving. And her mom asked me - her mom name is Aisha (ph). And she kept saying, don't stop. And the girl, her daughter, said, they stole mom's life. I will not allow them to steal my life. She's - I met her in 2011, six years ago. She's now 20.

GROSS: What are the dress restrictions on women now in Saudi Arabia?

AL-SHARIF: Not only on Saudi women, on all women - so you have - I wish they'd just tell us, you have to wear modest clothes. I would respect that. But you have to put on an abaya. An abaya's a cloak. You put it on top of your clothes. Most families frown at girls when they want to uncover their face. Most husband don't want their wives to uncover their face. So it's enforced by the government.

If you go to school, any government school, you have to cover your face. From middle school all the way until you graduate, you have to cover except in Jeddah. Jeddah, they don't - they're more liberal than the other cities. But all the other cities, you have to wear the abaya if you go to a government school and cover your face. All the government organizations - you have to cover your face by law. They - their employees have - women employees have to cover their face. In the street - depends on your family. But you can never walk in the street without putting on abaya. So that's a restriction.

GROSS: I know when you got married for the first time, your first husband said, OK, you're my wife now; you're not going out unless you cover your face.

AL-SHARIF: Yes, and I had to cover my face again after fighting everyone to stop covering my face. And actually it's one of the reasons I left my ex-husband.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Manal al-Sharif. Her new memoir is called "Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Manal al-Sharif. Her new memoir is called "Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening." She grew up in Mecca and, in her early teens, adhered to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In her 20s, she became the first woman to work in the information security division at Aramco, the Saudi national oil company. In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, she was arrested after organizing a protest against the ban on women driving. She now lives in Sydney, Australia.

So you didn't set out to be an activist. You were...

AL-SHARIF: No.

GROSS: ...Raised in Mecca. You became very religious in your early teens. You destroyed your brothers' music cassettes and your mother's magazines when you became so fervent in your religious belief. What made you so fervent? I mean you weren't brought up that way, so what kind of radicalized you?

AL-SHARIF: What radicalized me growing up was really schooling in Saudi Arabia. That's one. The second thing - the books that we used to read. And they distribute freely everywhere in markets and schools and mosques. Everywhere you go, those booklets - they distribute it. Also, the peers are conservative, ultraconservative. I would say teachers - they were our role models. And also, the - it's everywhere.

And you watch TV. You listen to radio. You - the cassettes - oh, my God, the cassettes. The cassettes were one of the major thing that radicalized the youth growing up. We were radicalized in the '80s and the '90s. There was one source of information. The books were censored, and we had all these wars going around in the Islamic world.

And I start with Afghanistan where the youth were encouraged to go for jihad in Afghanistan. One of those people who left was Osama bin Laden. I was brought up in this era or in this time, the awakening time they call it in Saudi Arabia. We've been through this. Everyone been through this in my country - destroying our photos, stopping everyone from listening to music, questioning the beliefs of the others, the hate against the infidels. We were brought up this way.

And even people like mom - she didn't believe, for example, in covering the face. Later on, she was against that I uncover my face. So even the ones who were not radicalized at that time, they were radicalized later. A lot of people broke out of that. Like, my sister and my brother didn't really care. There are a lot of people like my sister and my brother, also, who didn't care. But it was very difficult for them because everyone around them would not allow listening to music, would not allow watching TV or buying newspapers with pictures on it.

And it was the norm, by the way, in Saudi Arabia. It wasn't something like - oh, my God, it was huge if you know someone who listened to music. They would bring you cassettes to convince you not to listen to music. And they will talk to you...

GROSS: And these were like cassettes of speeches.

AL-SHARIF: Yes, sermons.

GROSS: Sermons.

AL-SHARIF: We have - so the cassettes were the ones that distributed these radical thoughts. In school, we were taught - and I wrote about it in my book. We were taught to hate against the nonbelievers. We were taught that even if he's Muslim and he doesn't follow the true Islam that we teach in the school, he's your enemy, even if he's your father or your mother.

Imagine when you're - when you learn these things. There were youth who go and burn whole cassette shops in Saudi Arabia. And this is the time I grow up with. When those people are our heroes, the extremists, they're our heroes because he's - she's (unintelligible). She follows the true Islam.

GROSS: So when you were radicalized, what did that mean for you as a girl? What were some of the things you believed that you as a girl should not be allowed to do and you fervently believed you should not be allowed to do it?

AL-SHARIF: I always questioned them. Even when I was practicing to be a good Muslim, and I was trying to please God and stay away from hellfire and go to heaven, I was still questioning these things. So I wasn't really happy. The more I was trying to follow the rules that we've been taught, the more miserable I became.

So even in the time of my radicalization, I felt - when I had to burn my own drawings. And I love drawing. When they stopped me from drawing animated objects like animals or humans, it wasn't something that I made with happiness. I was taught that this is the right way to call for God, and this is the right way to read his blessings or God's mercy.

GROSS: So you became a women's rights activist. Did that have to do with going to a university and maybe getting exposed to books different from the kind of propaganda books that you were exposed to earlier in your life?

AL-SHARIF: No one grows up wanting to be an activist. I myself did not know what the word activist means. Just everyone started calling me activist after the campaign. When I was working at Aramco, the discrimination against this woman, I didn't know the word was discrimination. I just felt it's wrong that I do the same job as my male colleague, and he's treated differently just because of my gender. I think if I work in a female-only office, it will - I would not have these questions.

I started having it because I was working and I would be excluded from promotions because he's building a house. He has a family. Excuse me, but I'm working too, and I deserve this promotion. Or he gets to get - the company gives you a loan to build your own home. They exclude me because I'm a woman. Oh, your husband will get to you a house.

What if I'm a widow? What if I'm not married? What if I don't want to marry? Why I need to wait for a husband to give me the house? If you are pregnant and you apply for a job in Aramco, you will fail the medical test just because you're pregnant. This is discrimination. I was so mad.

So these things really make you speak up. Most people inside are too afraid to speak up because the backlash from the society and from the government is unbearable. We live in one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Men and women don't have political or civil rights. So imagine someone comes and asks for their civil rights.

The backlash is really huge. You get harassed. You get banned from leaving the country, which as we call it the internal exile. You lose your job. You cannot land a job after that, which was the case with me when I left my job. So the price - the personal price you pay is really high. And they make sure that everyone knows, so they don't follow you. They don't walk in your path.

DAVIES: Manal al-Sharif speaking with Terry Gross. Al-Sharif's new memoir is "Daring To Drive." We'll hear more from her after a break, including her reaction to the Trump family's visit to Saudi Arabia. Also, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Beatriz At Dinner" starring Salma Hayek. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SIROCCO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif. Her new memoir is called "Daring To Drive." A heads-up to parents, this part of our interview will include a brief discussion of female genital mutilation, which you may not feel is appropriate for children.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your life. Your mother's from a prosperous Libyan family. She was raised in a lavish home. Your father was born less than 20 miles outside of Mecca. He was illiterate, uneducated.

I think for your mother, marriage was a way of getting away from her family. But it sounds like she entered a kind of Saudi women's prison when she moved to Saudi Arabia because there were all these prohibitions that she had to abide by. You and your sister were circumcised, also called female genital mutilation. Who ordered that? Was that your mother's idea to do that?

AL-SHARIF: I have no clue. We didn't discuss it really with mom and dad, but the first trial was mom when she brought a woman to circumcise us. We had a woman in the family in the Sharif family. They call her (foreign language spoken). She used to circumcise girls. We were kids - really didn't understand what circumcision mean. And then the one who really circumcised us was a barber. He was my father's friend. My mom herself was circumcised, and she told us the story that she ran away with it cut - one labia. And the other one they couldn't cut, and she was bleeding. And she hid in the neighbor's house.

And it was shocking to me that mom - she puts us through the same thing. But the pressure from the society is huge that a mom, a mother and a father can put their own daughters through so much pain just to abide by the society rules. This is how dangerous it is that your own children - you put them through so much pain because you need to follow. You need to be obedient to the - otherwise your daughters are dirty. Otherwise, your daughters would not be suitable for marriage.

GROSS: Is it still a custom to circumcise girls in Saudi Arabia?

AL-SHARIF: It's a taboo. You never hear anyone in Saudi Arabia talk about it. I sat with my cousin. I asked her and I said were you circumcised? Were any of your sisters - six sisters - circumcised? She refused to tell me. I talked to my other cousin. Were my aunts circumcised? Were you circumcised? Did you circumcise your daughter? They won't tell you.

See, they don't talk about it, and it happens in parts of society, not all parts of society, mostly my families, Sharif family, parts of the Hijaz and the south of Saudi. They do it, but people don't talk about it. There is no law, no one campaigning against it, and we don't have even statistics to tell us how many girls been going through FGM. No one knows.

GROSS: So it's a taboo. But a lot of people still do it anyways?

AL-SHARIF: I can't - I really can't answer a lot.

GROSS: Right. OK. Because you...

AL-SHARIF: Because I really don't have that number.

GROSS: And people don't talk about it.

AL-SHARIF: But I know it's happening just people are not talking about it.

GROSS: So you had no anaesthetic, no medication. It was a blunt instrument that was used. You were mutilated in the process. Later, you had corrective surgery. What impact do you think it had on you as a girl and as a woman to have undergone this female genital mutilation?

AL-SHARIF: I think the worst one is not the pain. The worse one is losing trust in the people you love.

GROSS: Because they put you through that.

AL-SHARIF: Yes. It's very difficult. It's very difficult to even talk about today.

GROSS: Didn't any adult explain to you what was being done or why it was being done?

AL-SHARIF: No. They never talked about it with us. They didn't explain to us what was going to happen. Growing up, it was not easy because I'm different from the other girls. And no one explained to me why I had to go through this. And in Saudi Arabia, it's - these things we don't get sex education, we don't get how your body looks like education.

The first time I saw a vagina is - my Brazilian husband showed me a picture of a vagina, and he said this is how a woman vagina look like. I'm like this is it? I had no clue. So we don't - I was 30 - it was last year. And these things really bothers me so much that we put women through this pain because it's all about controlling us. It's all about suppressing whatever urge that woman they think is going to have. And this is how to make sure she's stays virgin until her husband marries her. She finds a husband, and she gets married. It's all this obsession with virginity.

GROSS: I think a lot of girls grow up - and maybe this is less true today - but grow up with a lot of embarrassment surrounding their genitals, and I think how much worse that must be when somebody has shown up without any explanation and start cutting your genitals and that you have to live with the consequences of that for the rest of your life. How can you feel good about your body after something like that has happened?

AL-SHARIF: You never do. You always feel like less. You feel like why happened to me? Why I had to go through this? Muslims circumcise boys, and it happens in the seventh day after they're born. So they don't go through the trauma like girls. So girls - her genital had to be because when she is a baby, she - it's not grown yet. They have to wait until she's 8 or 7 - 7 and above. So they cut it.

And that idea of cutting part of your own child body is scary, is really - is - it really scares me like how the family do that to their own daughter. It's still a taboo, by the way. It's not - got nothing to do about Islam. It's an African thing. It came from Africa. And you find Christians and Muslims both in Egypt, for example, they circumcise their daughters. It's happening now in Europe because there are Muslims living there.

So they take their daughters on trips to do the circumcision. And it's scary because it's still a taboo in most countries. They're still not discussing it. It's not enough really done against it.

GROSS: You know, you write that because of the genital mutilation you - afraid you didn't want to get married. You know you...

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: But you did. You've been married twice. The first time, was there a love between the two of you?

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: Was it - there was?

AL-SHARIF: Yes, yes. I chose him. We were in love. We worked together. But I had to tell him. It was so difficult to explain what happened. He didn't believe like what? Because in his part of the country, they don't do this. So he didn't understand, but he was the only one. I had to tell him. It was very difficult, and I felt less. I did feel less when I had to tell him what happened, and I was thinking he was not going to marry at me because when they circumcised me, I was really, really misshaped because they had to use stitches after because I was bleeding.

And I looked different. I looked totally different. And I said I will look for a doctor to fix these things, so I had to go through more pain to fix things. It's never easy to discuss this thing. It's never easy to talk about it, but I think now I'm in peace with it. After I wrote about it, I think the book was really kind of therapy because, finally, I talk about things that I never talked.

I had to dust off all my dirties and go through them and write things that I would never discuss with even my closest friends. And now I'm just putting my whole life story, very intimate details in this book pages.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Manal al-Sharif. She is the author of the new memoir "Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening." We'll talk more about her work as a women's rights activist after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Manal al-Sharif. Her new memoir is called "Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening." She grew up in Mecca, and in her early teens adhered to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In her 20s, she became the first woman to work in the Information Security Division at Aramco the Saudi national oil company.

In 2011, she was arrested after organizing a protest against the ban on women's driving. And she now lives in Sydney, Australia. So when you got married, you know, we talked about this earlier. Your husband - your first husband said to you now that you're my wife, you have to cover your face...

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: ...In public and that - you found that very upsetting. You didn't want to cover your face.

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: Were there ways that your first husband changed once he became your husband and he officially had kind of control? I mean, was he your guardian when he became your husband?

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: So...

AL-SHARIF: Remember the car thing? When I said the car registration? Yes. Once I got married, my guardian became my husband.

GROSS: So the guardianship was transferred from - what? - your father to your husband?

AL-SHARIF: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So that's a really horrible position to be in where, like, the person who's supposed to be, you know, like, your lover, your partner becomes like your boss.

AL-SHARIF: No, not your boss - becomes your owner.

GROSS: Your owner, yes.

AL-SHARIF: He owns you.

GROSS: Yes.

AL-SHARIF: I wish. My boss is my friend.

GROSS: Right, right. I hear you. So did it change your feelings about him when he became your owner and actually used his authority?

AL-SHARIF: Gosh, I hated it. I loved him so much, but at the same time, it was so shocking to me that I have to go through what I went through with dad because my relationship with dad changed. I had to work on it to change - asking for permission for everything, covering my face. I broke through that with my father, and it wasn't easy - took so long time to stand my ground and tell dad, I want to marry this man or I'm not going to cover my face or I'm going to study in this school. It wasn't easy. It didn't come easy.

And then I thought like, oh, my God, I went back 10 years when I get married because I have to work again to change this man to accept that I'm independent, to accept that I have opinions, to accept that I'm not going to follow these rules. And it wasn't as easy as dad. Dad with time it could have changed him. And I thought I'm going to change his ideas, but I failed miserably.

And there was a mistake a woman make really when she gets mad with someone who she knows his - this is his personality. These are his thoughts and beliefs, and she thinks I'm going to change him. You can never change people. He could not change me because he thought that way, and I couldn't change him. So that was a mistake really.

GROSS: So you got divorced. Is it hard...

AL-SHARIF: I left. I left my ex-husband.

GROSS: Are you allowed to do that?

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: I mean, he owns you, as you said.

AL-SHARIF: No, you are allowed to do that. That's a surprise. So if a woman wants to get divorced, she can go to the court. And it's called (foreign language spoken). It's different than divorce where she has to pay him back anything he spent on her. And I told him I'm leaving you. When (foreign language spoken) allowing women to live in the compound, first thing I did. I applied for a housing and they gave me a studio.

And I told him I'm leaving you. He couldn't believe it, of course. And actually two weeks after I left the house, he sent me a text message saying you're divorced. He went himself, like, he didn't - I didn't have to go to the court and apply for a divorce and all these things which takes years. It was easy. I was like, wow, this is great.

It wasn't easy - no, the divorce itself was easy that he went to the court and divorced me, and I wasn't even there. I was mad that I wasn't there. It was difficult. I cried that day, but I knew it was the right thing to do because I couldn't change him. He couldn't change me.

GROSS: President Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first trip abroad, and he announced a $110 billion arms deal which includes precision weaponry and an anti-missile system. The Saudis gave him a really royal treatment, including projecting a multistory image of his face on the side of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where he was staying. I'm wondering what message do you think would you like to see President Trump give to the Saudis about women's rights?

AL-SHARIF: First of all, I had no expectations. We didn't expect anything. We actually didn't want anything from President Trump when he came to Saudi. What really bothered me wasn't President Trump. It was Ivanka Trump because when she spoke about women's rights, she said there'd been progress - encouraging progress is what she called. That was really an insult to the woman's rights movement because the government didn't do any progress.

The progress that it did, it was very cosmetic. It didn't really at least name an age for woman - that she's an adult, considered an adult. And for us women in the last movement, which is I Am My Own Guardian, the leaders of this movement are being prosecuted, being sent to jail. Miriam Letabe (ph), one of the leaders of this movement, she's in jail since April 17. I even tweeted to her. Of course, she didn't see my tweet but it just - I wanted to do that.

I said, I wish you stayed quiet. Just be quiet. We're fighting. When you say these things, you're just giving them a reward for something they didn't do. Just being - what's the right word to say? - hypocrite. That really made us really mad back home. When Miriam Letabe was jailed on April 17, one week later, the U.N., they voted - Saudi Arabia - to be part of woman - women's rights commission exactly one week later.

And countries that promote women's rights, countries like U.K. and Belgium, they voted for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is ranked 141st out of 144 countries in the world when it comes to the Gender Gap Index, the Global Gender Gap Index. How this country made it to the women's rights commission in the U.N.? So this - these actions are the ones that really troubles us when it comes from politicians.

GROSS: So you thought that - you were upset with Ivanka Trump's comments because she complimented the government on its progress.

AL-SHARIF: Yes.

GROSS: And the government hasn't really made much in the way of progress but...

AL-SHARIF: Cosmetic. Cosmetic.

GROSS: Just cosmetic, but you didn't speak out on behalf of the women who are actually taking the risks to further women's rights and the women who are in jail because of those risks that they've taken. Is that what you're saying?

AL-SHARIF: We did not want her really to want to talk about these things. We're not expecting her to talk at these things but at the same time to stay quiet. So if there is not real progress, and there is a backlash on women's rights activists being prosecuted and sent to jail, you're giving them a reward by saying there is a progress.

For me, it's - this is the backstop. This is the one that if you don't want to criticize and support the movement, don't talk. But to go and even encourage and reward them for things that they didn't do, that was the thing that bothered me so much.

GROSS: So you're on a book tour now in the U.S.

AL-SHARIF: Yeah.

GROSS: Are you going back to Saudi Arabia anytime in the near future?

AL-SHARIF: Yes, of course. I have my son there. So after the tour, right away I'm going back to Saudi.

GROSS: Are you worried?

AL-SHARIF: Hopefully I don't get arrested. I I'm always worried. Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I'm always worried because it's never - you never know when you get arrested again for a tweet or a retweet or something you said in an interview like what I'm doing now with you, something that slipped.

So you have to always have this filter going on the whole time you talk. Can I say this or not? Will this get me in trouble or not? Because at the end of the day, I always think I'm going back to Saudi. I have to - I want to see my son. So it's tricky.

GROSS: Well, I hope you stay safe.

AL-SHARIF: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for your bravery and for speaking with us. Thank you.

AL-SHARIF: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Manal al-Sharif speaking with Terry Gross. Al-Sharif's memoir is called "Daring To Drive." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Beatriz At Dinner" starring Salma Hayek. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "WEATHER SHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.