It was a conversation with a male colleague that added fuel to the fire for al- Sharif. She was complaining to him about a time when she wished she had been able to drive. He informed her that there was no law that said she couldn’t. “I looked it up and felt like someone had slapped me,” al-Sharif said. “I thought if the law doesn’t stop us, why can’t we do it? Sometimes I cry out of anger that this is just something forced upon us by society.”
This frustration sparked the Women2Drive initiative, uniting young women from cities across Saudi Arabia hoping to change their circumstances. They held group meetings online and used the only media outlet that would bring attention to the cause: social media. The group released a statement on their Facebook and Twitter pages detailing their purpose, goals and evidence.
“What we started was an initiative, not a campaign, [because] we were lobbying a social decision, not a law or religious belief,” al-Sharif said. “We wanted to tell women that it is [neither] illegal nor problematic in terms of religion.” Al-Sharif and her colleagues view driving as one of the most important issues facing Saudi woman. “We can’t walk in our cities,” she says, “nor do we have any public transport.”
So they put out a call with a date: June 17, 2011. That was the day the initiative set out asking all women with valid driver’s licenses to get out and drive, not in protest, but to go about completing their daily errands. “We were able to be successful for three reasons,” al-Sharif said. “First, we used social media. Second, we came out as women with our names and pictures and took the lead, with men as only supporters in the shadow. Third, we [set] a date — so now we were serious.”
We Will Drive
With the call to drive set for June 17, the questions and accusations came pouring in. People began asking what the group was about, why they chose that specific date and whether it was legal. When the team realized that people weren’t reading everything that was written online, they decided they had to release something that could be watched and easily understood.
That’s when al-Sharif released her first video. “We took all the major questions people were asking and I answered them,” she said. “I hadn’t written my answers down, I just spoke from my heart.” Al-Sharif recorded the video at 5 a.m. in her home in Dhahran dressed in a hijab, an Islamic headcover, and speaking in a calm voice with a smile. started out by introducing herself and ended her seven-and-a-half minute video with a statement that would become famous: “All there is to it is that we are going to drive.” She continues, “So many people have mentioned this phrase to me…I said that because I wanted to say that this is not as big of a deal as you are making it.”
Video Gone Viral
Al-Sharif drove twice before June 17, in order to encourage women to take part in the initiative, once on Thursday, May 19 and again on Saturday, May 21. Her first drive was inspired by 45-year-old Najla Hariri. A week before al-Sharif’s first drive, Hariri had declared that she began driving her son to school whenever her driver was not available.
“I spoke to my brother and said, ‘I’m going to do something crazy.’ He asked me what, “I said, ‘I’m going to go out and drive.” al-Sharif says, “He said, ‘I’ll come videotape you!’ “She needed someone to capture her driving on video, so that it could be used as encouragement in the online campaign. Thursday was the day al-Sharif usually bought her groceries. She decided she was not taking a taxi to the store. In the morning, however, al-Sharif’s 28-year-old brother overslept. She had no one to come along to film her.
That’s when she called long-time women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider. Al-Sharif had only met al- Huwaider once, but asked her to leave all other engagements to come along and record al-Sharif driving. Al-Huwaider agreed and became the second voice in the video that exceeded 700,000 views in one day. “I met her at 12 p.m. We went out and [I] drove [while] she recorded me,” al-Sharif said.
The Women2Drive team uploaded the video to Youtube the next day. To al-Sharif’s surprise, it became the most-viewed video in the world that day. “A colleague of mine came to me and said, ‘Manal I saw your video,’ I said, ‘OK?’ He said, ‘It’s the most viewed video in the world!’” Al-Sharif says she couldn’t believe it.
I told my brother I wanted to drive and pass by a police car.
The Second Drive
Two days later, al-Sharif was going out with her six-year-old son and family for lunch in the city of Khobar, where al- Sharif’s brother lived. “I told my brother I wanted to drive and pass by a police car.” She wanted to see how she would be treated. The police car stopped her. Al-Sharif describes the police officer as being well-mannered, almost letting her go with only a ticket. Someone had seen her however, and called the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the “Religious Police.”
The “Religious Police” stood al- Sharif and her family on the street for two hours, questioning and ridiculing them. Then they took her and her brother to the police station and brought in the Saudi intelligence service. “At 11 p.m., they made me sign a pledge and they let me go,” al-Sharif said. “At 2 a.m., they came to my house to take me. At 4:30 a.m., I went back to the police station.” Al-Sharif said she underwent seven hours of questioning and degradation without access to a lawyer. At 2 p.m., she was transported to a prison with no knowledge of where she was going, and with no charges laid against her. “[I’m] an engineer, a consultant, and daughter of a respected family, she said, “and suddenly I found myself in prison with criminals.”
Nine Days In Jail
After being transported to a women’s prison in the city of Dammam, al-Sharif was completely cut off from the rest of the world. “I was completely isolated from the world,” she said, “It’s very painful to talk about it. I haven’t talked about it to anyone before — I’ve tried to block it out.” Al-Sharif counted 167 women, 16 children and seven cells in the prison where she felt was stripped of all humanity. On her first night, al-Sharif had nowhere to sleep. “I slept on the floor the first night. I spread my abaya and slept on it,” she said.
The prison manager was there to receive her detention papers. Al-Sharif said he was rude and demeaning to her. “I told him I just want to speak to my son. There was a phone right next to him,” she said of the prison manager. “I was crying, saying, ‘Please be merciful let me speak to my child.’”
The Women2Drive movement estimates about 1,200,000 people around the world changed their Facebook picture to al-Sharif’s portrait in support of her freedom. The association of al-Sharif’s face with the women’s revolution in the Middle East has led some to refer to her as the female Che Guevara. “I stayed in my abaya for nine days,” she said. “The women in prison kept telling me to take it off and I’d say no I’m leaving today.” Al-Sharif was released on bail on May 30.
Had I known at the time of the consequences, I might not have done it. But I did it fearlessly. I didn’t think about it.
I just did it.
Her arrest, and the subsequent consequences, social disapproval and widespread gossip, left the Women2Drive
team fearful that women in Saudi Arabia were no longer motivated to join the cause. To their surprise, al-Sharif’s arrest actually backfired.
One hundred women were reported themselves to have driven that day. More than 40 recorded themselves and posted it online. “A girl told me, ‘I went and saw the prison I might be taken to and prepared my clothes for it. Let them do whatever they want to me, [she said] I will not tolerate oppression,’” al-Sharif said.“ Other women told me that what happened to me made them see the injustice clearly. It was a wake-up call to Saudi women.”
Although she’s still haunted by the memory of her days in prison, al-Sharif said she does not regret it. “Had I known at the time of the consequences, I might not have done it. But I did it fearlessly. I didn’t think about it. I just did it,” she says. “I left jail with my head up high. I didn’t feel ashamed.”
In a country where protests and civil disobedience are not allowed, al-Sharif’s arrest was controversial. “Saudi society is divided down the middle, as though with a knife, about me,” al-Sharif said. “Some people even say we support women driving, but not in the way of Manal.“Martin Luther King Jr. [said], ‘A right delayed, is a right denied.’ I like that quote,” she says. “They are always telling us it’s not time yet.”
She compared the Saudi situation to that of neighbouring countries such as the UAE, pointing out that both are conservative, but women face no problem driving there. “It’s a taboo,” she said. “If you [talk about] women driving here, it’s like saying Satan or blasphemy. We needed women leaders to come out and speak about this taboo, so I had to do it myself.”
Forbes recently wrote an article titled, “How the Occupy Wall Street protesters can Learn from Saudi women.” Al-Sharif said she once wished that, instead of being pitied by the world, Saudi women would inspire the world. “My wish came true when I read that article,” she said. “We really inspired the world.”