In Search of Strong Women

December 18, 2017   •   By Priyanka Kumar

Daring to Drive

Manal al-Sharif

Letters to a Young Muslim

Omar Saif Ghobash

MIDWAY THROUGH a road trip this past summer, I stopped in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to have a private audience with Tsultrim Allione, head of the Tibetan Buddhist center Tara Mandala. Toward the end of our discussion, Allione mentioned that just before 9/11, she had been struggling to make Tibetan Buddhism a more inclusive tradition for female teachers.

“When 9/11 happened, I was in solitary retreat,” she said. “My husband, who was serving me (bringing food and supplies), told me what had happened — that these men had crashed planes into the trade towers. And I thought, ‘Where were the women in these men’s lives?’”

“Where were the women who would have tempered these men?” I clarified.

“Yes,” she nodded. “Where are their strong women?”

What an extraordinary question. I sat up straighter on my banquette. Outside, the sky was a powder blue. Over that summer, I had been researching a subject that echoed Allione’s question.

I had just read Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, written by Manal al-Sharif, the first woman to openly break Saudi Arabia’s ban against women driving. The traffic police had pulled her over for the “crime” of driving her brother’s car (he was in the passenger seat). Al-Sharif nevertheless posted videos of herself driving on YouTube. She was then seized from her home, where she lived with her preschool-aged son, and jailed in the filthiest, roach-infested prison you can imagine.

Saudi Arabia, a flag bearer of female oppression, is also home to the “male guardianship” system, which reduces women to wards, or even the property, of their male relatives and of the state. A Saudi woman cannot, for example, rent an apartment or travel outside the country without the written permission of her male guardian. Both al-Sharif and her sister needed their father’s consent in order to enroll in college. The guardianship laws not only inhibit a woman’s freedom, but they also render her helpless without her assigned male guardian.

Most young Saudi women who are imprisoned “are sentenced for morality-related charges such as being caught in the company of an unrelated male, being accused of running away from home by a male relative or being disobedient to parents,” women’s rights campaigner Hala al-Dosari recently told author Mona Eltahawy. The latter charge — being disobedient to parents — is considered to be “a crime calling for immediate detention in Saudi Arabia.”

Along with suppression of women, radical strains of Islam also thrive in Saudi Arabia. Is there a connection between the two? Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was famously a Saudi son. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Saudi Arabia an “ideological hub for Islamist terrorism.”

What are the dots that connect burka-clad women in Saudi Arabia to oppressed women in other Muslim-majority countries, such as the enslaved women who service ISIS militants, or the Syrian women who get stiffed by their country’s inheritance laws? Could stronger women in such countries truly act as checks to potential terrorists, as Allione had suggested? Or is that question itself steeped too much in a traditionalist mode of thinking?

When I sifted through recent stories of women from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, certain patterns emerged. Not surprisingly, oppressive cultural traditions minimize women’s roles outside the domestic sphere, but what is lesser known is that legal systems in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria further weaken the status of women. Islamic clerics are influential in conservatizing the populations in Muslim-majority countries, but they also work hand in hand with the government to perpetuate a system that silences women and curbs their rights.

I have written previously about the passive-aggressive way in which the US criminal justice system discriminates against black and Latino peoples, but it is astonishing to consider a justice system that actively and openly discriminates against a sizable segment of the population, namely women.

In approaching my inquiry, it was important to understand that in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, sharia law, a religious law derived primarily from the Qur’an and the Hadith (the Sayings), also plays a role in shaping criminal law. The 19th and 20th centuries saw well-meaning efforts to reform Islamic law, based on changing social needs. These reforms borrowed significantly from European legal models, but they suffered a setback in the late 20th century. “Once the backlash against westernization began in the 1970s,” writes Ann Elizabeth Mayer, author of Islam and Human Rights, “states began enacting laws that selectively revived elements of traditional Islamic law, including controversial prohibitions on blasphemy and apostasy, and limitations of women’s rights.”

It is precisely this cocktail of religious law and civil law that delivers such a knock-out blow to the rights of many Arab women.


In 2011, Manal al-Sharif was a computer security engineer working for Aramco, a Saudi Arabian Oil Company. In her early 30s, she knew how to drive, and had a car parked in her garage, but her country’s laws prohibited her from driving. Aramco had once been an American-owned company and it was a universe unto itself, but outside the Aramco compound, al-Sharif, like other Saudi women, had to rely on an unreliable system of taxicabs or beg male relatives for rides.

One night, unable to get a ride back home after a doctor’s appointment, al-Sharif walked alone on the street, without a niqab to cover her face. Soon, nearby men in cars jeered and hurled slurs at her. One driver began to follow her closely. Though al-Sharif had a phone with her, in Saudi Arabia sexual harassment hardly has legal standing, so she took matters into her own hands and threw rocks at the stalker’s car to make him disappear.

The authorities, especially the religious police, always blame the woman. They say she was harassed because of how she looked or because of the way she was walking or because she was wearing perfume. They make you the criminal.

That night, al-Sharif got so frustrated with the degradation of having to always find a male driver and of being harassed on the streets that she decided that on her next birthday, she would openly break the ban on driving. While many Saudi women suffer daily humiliations, few dare to voice their anger, for fear of retribution. For example, in 1990, during the first driving ban protest, six schoolteachers who dared to drive lost their jobs.

This is a society where women are expected to signal their virtue by covering themselves from head to toe and staying at home. Islamic clerics encourage the suppression of Saudi women through propaganda, including pamphlets with titles such as “A Gift to the Muslim Woman,” which reads in part:

My Muslim sister: today, you face a relentless and cunning war waged by the enemies of Islam with the purpose of reaching you and removing you from your impenetrable fortress. […] Don’t be tricked by the ideas they are promoting. One of the things that these enemies of Islam are trying to discredit and eliminate is the niqab. The facial covering is what distinguishes a free woman from an infidel woman or a slave and avoids her being confronted with the wolves that walk among us.

Curiously, the religious police don’t blame the wolves walking the streets and instead leave it to women like al-Sharif to throw rocks at their stalkers. Not wearing a niqab had already gotten al-Sharif into personal trouble. The man she had fallen in love with also worked for Aramco, but he wanted her to quit her job and cover her face in order to be suitable marriage material. She refused to do so, and though the couple did eventually marry, al-Sharif’s modern outlook remained a constant source of tension in the marriage, which ended in a divorce.


Interestingly, many of the tactics that are used to subjugate women in Saudi Arabia are also used on teenagers at large. After the terrorist attack this June on London bridge, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that extremism “will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence,” and make young people “understand that our values, pluralistic British values, are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”

But how to turn young people’s minds away from violence, when they are exposed to hate from a tender age? Even al-Sharif admits that she became radicalized as a teenager. It began with religious teaching in schools, and was reinforced by free cassette tapes and propaganda pamphlets, which seemed to rain on her from all directions. Soon, she was “melting her brother’s boy band CDs in the oven” because music is haram: forbidden by Islamic law.

A similar tale unspools in another book published earlier this year, Letters to a Young Muslim, by United Arab Emirates diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash. When he was 15, Ghobash went to study in a British boarding school. On his first Friday, he headed with his fellow Muslim schoolmates to a local mosque in a residential area.

I came away from that suburban mosque shocked at what seemed to be an extremely violent Islam. While the sermon was being conducted in a language I did not understand, but believe to have been Bengali, I was given little leaflets with machine guns drawn on them and injunctions to kill various Arab leaders.

How are teenagers supposed to have the intellectual wherewithal to counter the message of hate and violence, which clerics routinely subject them to? It doesn’t help that “8.6 million Arabs are not enrolled in primary or secondary school; 5 million of these children are girls,” as Ghobash writes. Even for a bright student like al-Sharif, the restrictions and prohibitions she had to abide by — including the ritual of five daily prayers, keeping one’s face covered, and separation from male relatives — became so overwhelming that “independent thought was all but impossible.”

Amazingly, the education system can encourage young people, who might otherwise be moderate Muslims, to become prone to radicalization. “As a teenager, at least sixty percent of our time in class was spent studying religion and religious subjects,” al-Sharif writes. “But we were not studying a classical, historical understanding of Islam. We were studying a hybrid Salafi ideology, which decreed that Islam must be returned to its purest form.” She explains that the Saudi royal family has allowed the Salafi doctrine to dominate much of the kingdom. “This Salafism requires strict adherence to the most literal interpretation of the Koran, believes in no other law but sharia, and embraces the tenets of jihad against nonbelievers.”

A key component of our school curriculum was the Doctrine of Loyalty and Disavowal. The first stage of disavowal, as we were taught, is to hate and to become an enemy of the “infidels,” in this case meaning anyone who is faithful to a religion or creed other than Islam, including atheists or anyone who follows another version of Islam, such as the Shiite sect.

The United States has, bizarrely, long been an ally of Saudi Arabia. Our recent presidents, from Bush to Obama to Trump have consistently embraced Saudi leadership, thus sending the message that the United States is willing to do business with tyrants. The Saudis have been the lead perpetrators of a two-year bombing campaign in Yemen, which has led to a devastating ongoing famine. Experts such as Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s recent move to isolate the tiny country of Qatar reflect a “bullishness” prompted by the Trump administration’s stances — on the confrontation with Iran and on a willingness to look the other way on human rights violations.

Still, we don’t imagine that the Saudi Ministry of Education prints and disseminates books titled “Jihad for the Sake of Allah.” But al-Sharif assures us that that is exactly what happens.

Anxious to reject the pan-Arab nationalists who were coming to power in places like Egypt and Iraq, the Saudis decided to align themselves with some of the most radical of the Islamists, men who had been jailed in other nations, like Egypt, for their violent ideology. These men had found a political haven in the Saudi kingdom. Now they were also going to find a place of supreme importance in the Saudi educational system. The task of drafting the curriculum for all school stages was entrusted to leaders of organizations like the Muslim brotherhood. Thus our books included works such as “Jihad for the Sake of Allah,” by Sayyid Qutb, as well as writings by radical Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, whose ideology of violent holy war on behalf of the one true Islam is the basis for much of the religious interpretations expounded by Al Qaeda and ISIS.

In addition to the indoctrination that occurs in schools, aggressive clerics present themselves to young people as formidable authority figures. Ghobash writes that clerics have built an elaborate system of theories that insist that Islam can derive more power through violence. “Violence is sold to us, by some within our faith, as the noblest and most effective means by which we can defend our faith from attack.”

The idea that Islam is under attack is used relentlessly to recruit potential terrorists, but Ghobash, a practicing Muslim, courageously goes on to admit: “It is a fiction that our faith is under attack. It is a fiction that violence brings good things in its wake. And it is a fiction that violence is a noble and effective means to achieve anything other than itself.”


The needs of Islamic fundamentalism dovetail nicely with cultural attitudes and laws that subjugate women. A culture of fear keeps women and men uneducated, and leaves little room for introspection or independent thought, both of which are necessary to understand the modalities of hate and violence. Ghobash encourages his son to sip from the fount of knowledge, while also presents him with this grim statistic: “Remember that while the Islamic community once represented knowledge, wealth, and power, today almost 70 percent of your fellow Muslims can neither read nor write.”

Some in the Islamic world are beginning to question the rhetoric of hate. This year, just before the month of Ramadan began, Zain, a Middle Eastern telecommunications company put out an evocative, if melodramatic television ad that exhorts a suicide bomber to believe in love and mercy, instead of violence. The ad ends with this message: “Instead of hatred, we will sing songs of love.”

The Western news media now increasingly covers human-interest stories from the Arab world, but terrorism in, say, Afghanistan gets significantly less play than do terrorist attacks in London. The UN reported that over 1,600 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2017 alone. In the United States, while we did learn that the young women of the Afghani robotics team were initially refused a visa to enter our country, and later granted one, there was minimal press coverage given to a terrorist incident on August 1, when a suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque in Herat, a western Afghan province; among the 32 people killed was the father of the 14-year-old girl who was the captain of the Afghani robotics team.

If we are not aware of the terrorism occurring in faraway countries like Afghanistan, it becomes easier for us to look away, until the violence comes closer to our shores. Terrorism in the name of Islam is one of the great challenges of our time, but we devote surprisingly few resources to understanding its nuances. This is a problem that resists simplifications. Understanding the culture of fear, which subjugates women, and catalyzes terrorist ideology, is an important first step.


Among the patchwork of systemic controls that are used to subjugate women in Muslim-majority countries, perhaps the most surprising one is the legal system. A US State Department document on Syria notes that while there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence is a principal source of legislation.

Inheritance is based on Islamic law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, women were usually granted half the share of inheritance that male heirs received. When a Christian woman married a Muslim, she was not entitled to inheritance.

While the Syrian constitution and other laws ostensibly protect religious freedom, they do not protect the rights of Christian women, and allow Muslim women to be discriminated against by only receiving half the inheritance that their male siblings get.

In her memoir The Home That Was Our Country, Syrian Alia Malek notes that her grandmother, Salma, a Christian, was not protected by her country’s inheritance laws, and though Salma was a loyal and devoted daughter, her wealthy, landowner father left her with absolutely nothing.

Salma, too, was handicapped, not by geopolitical proxy wars and struggles, but simply because she was a woman […] Abdeljawwad [her father] had already made clear that his two daughters would not inherit from him.

Malek notes that Salma felt disadvantaged because of her gender, both in her family and in Syrian society.

To Salma, being cut off simply because she was a woman was deeply painful, and the pain would only deepen over time […] But it wasn’t just in her family that her sex disadvantaged her. Had she been a man, she would have been able to work outside the house, create her own livelihood, and have something that was just hers.

Discrimination that is coded into law scaffolds longstanding customs and traditions and deprives women of equal status with men. The author Kamel Daoud (The Meursault Investigation) has recently suggested that the “collusion between civil laws and religious laws” continues to “handicap the Arab world.” He writes that religious laws overlap with civil laws and “modify them, transforming their spirit, covertly or overtly.” He points out that a reformist speech given this August by Tunisian president Béji Caïd Essebsi, a lawyer by training, “caused a storm.”

Even as he [Essebsi] stated that he didn’t want to shock the Tunisian people, which is predominantly Muslim, he pointed out that under the Constitution, the Tunisian state was “civil,” and turning to the rights of men and women, added: “We must state that we are moving toward equality between them in every sphere. And the whole issue hinges on the matter of inheritance.”


The night al-Sharif was detained in a police station for driving a car, she told the police chief: “I did not violate any traffic code. According to Section 32 of the Traffic Statute, there is no gender specification in the driver’s license application. In fact, there is nothing in the statute anywhere that says women can’t drive.”

When the police chief nevertheless asked al-Sharif and her male guardian (her brother) to sign a pledge that she would never drive again, she pressed him to tell her what code she had broken. The police chief relented and told her that she had broken orf, which means a custom, a practice, or convention in Saudi society. Soon after, she was thrown into a basement prison, crammed with other long-suffering women and roaches, and endured a nightmare, which only ended after her father met with King Salman and all but begged for his forgiveness.

When a society uses orf to rule over women, it hinders itself from entering the modern world. Yet brave Saudi women have joined the ranks of professionals, albeit in small numbers. “A women-owned law firm opened in Jeddah in 2014,” al-Sharif writes, “and four female lawyers are licensed to practice in the Saudi system, rather than simply serving as ‘legal consultants.’”

There are also extraordinary examples of female leaders in Muslim-majority countries. Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, was the first female prime minister of Pakistan. Maryam Mirzakhani, the Iranian mathematician who died this summer was the only woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal.


I recently attended a lecture by journalist and author Glenn Greenwald. Among other grievances, he spoke about Islamophobia in the United States. He spoke of giving talks in American Muslim communities, to small audiences, after which a man might come up and say, “When a new person joins our mosque, we cannot welcome him into our community as we would like to, because we don’t know if he’s an FBI agent or an informer.” A young person might also tell Greenwald that he is afraid of speaking about politics in his college, because everyone already looks at him with suspicion — so he has given up exercising his political rights and keeps quiet.

The culture of fear of Islam or Muslims as a political force is a formidable problem and should rightly be addressed, but correspondingly, so should the culture of fear within the Islamic world, which suppresses and silences women, and which additionally paves the way for the radicalization of teenagers.

Around the time I heard Greenwald speak, the Saudi government made a surprise announcement on state television that beginning in June 2018, it will allow women to drive. That is certainly a step in the right direction — if it is not only a symbolic gesture to improve the Saudi image on the international scene. A culture of tyranny continues to thrive in Saudi Arabia, and there are signs that the country’s oppressions against political dissenters are tightening.

After hearing the news of the driving ban being lifted, al-Sharif, who now lives in Australia, has said that her next campaign will be to end male guardianship laws. Bemoaning the same laws, a middle-aged Saudi woman recently said that she needs her teenage son’s permission to leave the country. There have been some scattered signs that the male guardianship rules are unofficially being relaxed. King Salman is said to favor an “enlightened” attitude toward women. Still, women are held up, harassed, and humiliated at the Saudi border unless they have the requisite paperwork from their male guardian.

Yes, the day in June 2018, when women will be able to drive legally in Saudi Arabia, should be celebrated, but that long overdue day is also the right time to ask when the medieval guardianship laws will finally be revoked. Next summer, Saudi women will be able to drive on their roads, past street wolves, religious police, and prisons. It is time they also be able to travel the globe without needing their teenage sons to sign off on it.


Priyanka Kumar, author of the novel Take Wing and Fly Here and the writer/director of the documentary The Song of the Little Road, has written widely on social justice issues.