On the top floor of Cairo’s Nile Fairmont hotel, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif was being mobbed. Female activists from around the Arab world clamoured to shake her hand, swap business cards, and ask her advice. Dressed in an elegant pants suit, she greeted each one as if they were old friends, then talked to them with an intensity that was hard to interrupt.
This was an unusual event: a summit for female cyber-activists, featuring social media luminaries from the Middle East and the West.
In this community, Manal al-Sharif is a hero, for one major reason: In Saudi Arabia last May, she dared to drive. Then she posted a video of the event on YouTube, complete with live commentary on the appalling status of women in the Kingdom. Before the video, in Arabic only, was removed four days later, it had been viewed more than 700,000 times. It has been posted again with English subtitles and continues to draw tens of thousands of viewers.
As millions of people around the world were soon to discover, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.
Now al-Sharif is known as ‘the woman who filmed herself driving.’ But that YouTube video is only the beginning of her story.
When I first contacted al-Sharif last June, she was under great pressure from the Saudi authorities to stay quiet. I made several requests for interviews through the year, each one politely declined. Finally, in Cairo, she agreed to one of the very few interviews she has given, cautious as she is about raising the ire of the Saudi authorities. “After I speak to you, I’ll have to lay low for another few months,” she says, as we looked for a quiet place to talk.
Sitting in a room overlooking the Nile, al-Sharif said she drove to make a simple point. “I wanted to prove there are no wolves — they call them ‘menwolves’ — in the street that were going to eat me, or rape me,” she says. “I drove in al-Khobar, one of the biggest cities in the eastern province. I stopped, I bought groceries, came back, and no-one talked to us,” she recalled.
Al-Sharif’s protest was a rare act of public defiance in a country that is generally ignored by Western journalists. The international media leapt on it, because it fit the narrative perfectly: another potential canary in the coalmine of the Arab Awakening.
Bizarrely, as al-Sharif’s story raced around the world, the Saudi authorities were silent. “That really creeped us out,” she says. Al-Sharif was working on a nationwide campaign called Women2Drive, which called on Saudi women with foreign driver’s licences to drive in the Kingdom on June 17, 2011. Despite promoting the campaign on Twitter and Facebook, she hadn’t received one word of caution from the government. “We were so anxious about it,” she says. “We were like, are they going to hurt us, the women who are going to drive on June 17?”
A few days later, on May 21, al-Sharif was about to go to lunch with her family when she had an idea. “I said to my brother, ‘Can we try something? Can we drive, and go past a police car to see their reaction?’”
The traffic police did pull the pair over, but there was little they could do; there’s no actual law that prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia. “They usually take you down the station with your father or brother and get you to sign a pledge never to drive again,” says al-Sharif. But as the traffic patrolmen debated what to do, a citizen standing nearby made a phone call to the muttawa, Saudi Arabia’s religious police.
There are two police forces in the Kingdom: one for the illegal, and one for the immoral. Armed with thin wooden canes, the muttaw a patrol the streets for violations of the Kingdom’s strict moral laws, or fatwas. They work under a broad, ambiguous mandate: from enforcing strict segregation of men and women (in public and in the workplace) and ensuring women are covered head-to-toe by the blackabaya, to punishing people for celebrating Valentine’s Day. One fatwa they are particularly fervent about enforcing is the one that prohibits women from driving.
When the muttawa pulled up alongside al-Sharif and her brother that afternoon, the situation escalated. “They were shouting at us, calling us names. They wanted to put me in their car,” al-Sharif recalled. “And that is a big shame, to be in the religious police car. That means you did something moral.”
The muttawa accused her of violating a cultural norm — arouf. When they asked her to sign a pledge not to drive again, Al-Sharif was indignant. “I said, ‘There is no law. What’s the point? Tell me: What did I violate?’”
She refused to cooperate, and after five hours of interrogation, they released her. Barely two hours later, at 2am the next morning, the secret police came to al-Sharif’s house and dragged her out. She was taken to a civilian jail and locked up without charge. “I said please, can I talk to my (six-year-old) son, he’s in the house, I want to tell him that Mommy is…” she recalls, trailing off. “We always hear these stories, where they just take you and put you in jail, and nobody ever hears about you again. That’s it, I thought. This is my end.”
Nine days of intense scrutiny from the foreign media and pressure from human-rights groups won al-Sharif’s release. By that time, her notoriety had skyrocketed inside the Kingdom. Headlines in the national press accused her of “inciting public opinion” and, invoking a classic Arab charge, of having an external sponsor and a “hidden agenda.”
The religious zealots made it clear to al-Sharif that to continue her campaign would be to risk her life. Anonymous phone calls threatened her with murder and rape, and her brother was harassed so badly he had to leave the country. He now lives in Kuwait.
“They usually take you down the station with your father or brother and get you to sign a pledge never to drive again.”
Even al-Sharif’s six-year-old son has been victimised. “They beat up my son [at school], and say, ‘You should be in jail with your mother.’” Last year, the religious teacher at her son’s school told the class, “Manal al-Sharif is a crazy woman, and if it were up to me, I’d never release her from jail.” Al-Sharif shook her head and went quiet for a moment. “He’s only six. He won’t understand all these complications.”
But it’s not just fanatics in Saudi Arabia who’ve been activated by al-Sharif’s campaign. “Women have told me, ‘Manal, what you did woke us up.’ Now they’re realising: We’ve been brainwashed all these years. Men’s rights, men’s rights — your father’s rights, your husband’s rights. But we never heard about a woman’s rights.”
Saudi Arabia has been aggressively resisting modernity since its nationwide clampdown in 1979. That year, as the world’s eyes were glued to the hostage crisis in Iran, a religious fanatic named Juhayman (Arabic for “angry face”), enraged by the westernised lifestyles of the Saudi royal family, laid siege to Islam’s holiest site, the Great Mosque at Mecca.
By the time he and his followers were captured two weeks later, 200 people were dead. The attack sent shockwaves through Saudi society, and a message to its monarch, King Khaled: To protect Saudi Arabia from its religious extremists, he would have to appease them. Liberal reforms were reversed, and the king gave millions of dollars to the ulama — the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia — to implement their rigid version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, across the kingdom.
Women’s rights were abolished entirely, and since then, their status has been equivalent to that of a legal minor: every decision they make must be approved by a male relative. Al-Sharif was adamant, however, that something in the kingdom is changing. “Last year, I heard this a lot: ‘Women will change this country, not men.’ Because women are outspoken, and they’re united,” she says.
That has a lot to do with the much-feared foreign influence. “There are around 257,000 students and their families living abroad,” says al-Sharif, who’s also lived abroad, having spent a year in Boston. “Women started going in 2005. This is the bravest thing King Abdullah did. Because those women are living a normal life abroad, and when they come back, they will not accept what we’re accepting.”
King Abdullah has been earning his reputation as a reformer, albeit in very small, slow steps. In September last year, the king granted women the right to vote and run for municipal parliament, and last month, Saudi women were granted the right to work in lingerie shops (previously, those jobs were held exclusively by men).
Even the scandalous Women2Drive campaign is gaining traction. The Shura, a consultative council that can propose new laws to the king, has agreed to meet a committee from the group. “They’ve rejected it for the past 21 years, so this is huge,” al-Sharif exclaimed.
“[You] hear these stories, where they just take you and put you in jail… That’s it, I thought. This is my end.”
Just as this tide is shifting, however, Saudi women may be about to face a new adversary. King Abdullah is 87 and visibly frail. It’s expected that his 78-year-old half-brother and heir, the religious conservative Crown Prince Nayef, will soon inherit the throne.
It was Prince Nayef who announced, after 47 women defied the country’s driving ban in 1990, that women were officially forbidden from driving. In his current role as Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef has led a fierce campaign against dissidents and human rights activists. A Saudi activist, speaking to me anonymously, said activists were really worried about his succession: “He is an extremist.”
But as long as the West continues to back Saudi hegemony in the region as a bulwark against Iran, there will be no reason to change. When King Abdullah announced Prince Nayef as his heir in October last year, President Obama said, “We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security,” and reaffirmed America’s “deep and longstanding” relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In December last year, the Obama administration announced an arms deal with Saudi Arabia valued at nearly $30 billion.
Al-Sharif, who works at ARAMCO, the biggest oil company in Saudi Arabia, conceded that while there’s oil in the Kingdom, change will come only by degrees. “It’s not going to happen in my time, it will be for the generations that come after. And they will come, and remember us. The generation before me, those women had the chance, but they didn’t speak up, they didn’t do anything about it. And we’re paying the price.”
No matter the personal price, al-Sharif is determined to continue. She’s the first woman to have ever been issued a driving ticket in Saudi Arabia, a fact she says she “couldn’t be more proud of.” This month, she will launch a new phase of the campaign, calling for women to have the right apply for a driver’s licence and learn how to drive at driving schools. “People see me going — I’m very strong, and they’re like, ‘She has someone supporting her.’ I have no-one, except my son and my family.” Even the women’s rights supporters in Saudi are split on her campaign. “I’ve been told a lot, ‘You’re superficial, you’re so silly — there are divorced women, widows, impoverished people, why don’t you fight for them?’
“Because I started something, and I’m going to finish it — whether they like it or not,” she says adamantly. “I’m not going to stop until the first driver’s licence has been issued to a woman in Arabia. Twenty-one years of agony in this country should end.”