A Country of One King and Millions of Queens

he secret police came for me at two in the morning.
The second knock on the door quickly followed the
first. They were loud, hard knocks, the kind that radi-
ate out and shake the doorframe. My five-year-old son
was asleep, but I was awake still, sitting up with my brother.
Startled, my brother jumped up and rushed to the entry. I stayed
slightly behind, feeling the night air rush in as he pulled open the
door. It was May, so the air was warm but still pleasant, not oppres-
sively hot. And it was dark. My lone porch light had burned out weeks
before and I hadn’t bothered to replace it. I thought about the light,
I wondered whether the sudden noise would have woken my son—
small thoughts passing through my mind in those seconds before
­everything changed.
In the shadowy darkness, all we could see were men, crowding
around my front stoop, pressing forward. They had no uniforms,
nothing to identify them. When my brother asked them who they
were, there was silence. Finally, one of them spoke. “Is this Manal
al-Sharif ’s house?”

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2 Manal al-Sharif

My brother didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he answered, his voice firm.
“She needs to come with us right now. They want to see her at the
Dhahran police station.” My brother did not have to ask why. That
previous afternoon I had been pulled over by the traffic police for the
“crime” of driving my brother’s car. The specific citation was “driving
while female.” My brother had been sitting beside me, in the passen-
ger seat, and then had sat next to me again for five hours inside the
Thuqbah traffic police station, a two-story, nondescript concrete gov-
ernment building with a sturdy fence all around and a detention room
where drivers could be held for hours or even days. There was only
one detention space in the station, and it was only for men. I’m quite
sure that I was the first woman ever to enter the Thuqbah station. It
took the police several hours, including a call to the commander and
a visit to the local governor’s house, just to produce a paper for me to
sign. The paper was a promise to never again drive on Saudi lands. I
refused to sign, but they persisted. When my brother read the piece of
paper, he realized I would only be admitting to having violated Saudi
custom, because there are no specific Saudi statutes or lines in the
traffic code that forbid women from driving. All they could accuse
me of was disobeying the orf, or custom. I signed, and we were re-
leased. My brother and I took a taxi home, thinking that the incident
was over, thinking that we had stymied the system, that in some small
way, we had won.
We returned to my town house to find the TV on. There were
pizza boxes on the coffee table, and three of my friends were clus-
tered in my small living room with their laptops and smartphones.
As I walked in, my sister-in-law started crying, and my friends
rushed over and hugged me, shouting that they couldn’t believe the
police had let me go. One friend had even started a Twitter hashtag,
­#FreeManal, after I’d texted him from the car when the police first
pulled me over. Everyone was talking at once, telling me to look at
this tweet or that Facebook page or this news feed. In the six hours,
the news of my arrest had gone viral. But I couldn’t look at anything.
I was exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. All I wanted

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to do was to take a shower and go to bed. But it is against every Saudi
custom to ask guests to leave, so I sat and we talked about winning
our first battle, about having proved that there is no traffic code ex-
plicitly banning women from driving. When they finally left, they
were still so excited and happy—and so was I, thinking, Well, now
no one can stop us.
But then it was 2:00 a.m. and there were men at my door and my
elation from the day was gone. As soon as I heard the words “Dhah-
ran police station,” I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut
and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started

My town house was not in the holy city of Mecca, my childhood
home of twisted streets and thronging pilgrims, off-limits to all non-­
Muslims. Nor was it set amid the gleaming towers and sky bridges
of the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, high on a desert plateau. It
was tucked in perhaps the most Western enclave in the entire king-
dom, the pristine Aramco (Saudi Arabian Oil Company) compound
in the Eastern Province, originally designed by Americans working
for John D. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, which had helped
found Aramco. Today, Aramco is the Saudi state oil company and the
world’s largest daily exporter of oil, sitting atop 260 billion barrels of
petroleum reserves. It is also the world’s wealthiest company, with a
net worth estimated as high as $2.5 trillion. And it was my employer.
When the Americans sold Aramco to the Saudis in the 1970s and
1980s, part of the agreement required the Saudis to continue to em-
ploy women.
The Aramco compound has long been a world unto itself. With
lush green golf courses, lawns, palm trees, parks, and swimming pools,
it looks very much like a perfect Southern California town. Inside
the gates of Aramco, Saudi rules do not apply. Men and women mix
together. Women do not have to be veiled or covered. We celebrated
holidays like Halloween, when everyone dresses up in costumes. And

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4 Manal al-Sharif

unlike every other place in Saudi Arabia, inside the Aramco com-
pound, women can drive. There are no prohibitions, no restrictions.
They simply slip behind the wheel and start the engine. And there are
protections. Not even the local city police or the Saudi religious police
are allowed to venture onto Aramco-controlled land. Aramco has its
own security and fire departments. It handles its matters internally,
like a separate, sovereign state inside the Saudi kingdom.
But the Saudi secret police, I learned that night, could still enter.

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