Aired April 26, 2012 – 15:00:00   ET

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everybody and welcome to the program. I’m Christiane Amanpour.

The Arab Spring turned the Middle East upside down. Ruthless dictators were overthrown and popular movements arose like mythical warriors, sprung from dragon’s teeth. The struggle continues in Syria today, and it’s bloody. But Saudi Arabia, a monarchy rich with oil, was seemingly untouched. There have been Shiite protests as recently as January, but they’ve been quickly and firmly put down.

Perhaps, though, there’s a different movement springing up there. My brief tonight, paving the way for change in Saudi Arabia. And no one is doing more to bring about that change that one quietly courageous woman.

Women in Saudi Arabia are still treated as property, chaperoned like children whenever they go out in public, deprived of basic rights, such as a driver’s license. Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive themselves to work or to the market or even to the doctor’s office if they or a family member are in need of care. If they do, they can be arrested.

A YouTube video challenged all that, shot on a cell phone, it appeared last May and showed a Saudi woman driving a car through the streets of the capital, Riyadh. It quickly went viral and was followed by a Facebook page calling on Saudi women to get behind the wheel on a day of protest.

Their numbers weren’t great, but the battle was joined and the world was watching. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a supporter, and the quietly courageous woman I mentioned at the beginning, standing beside her, Manal al-Sharif, is my guest tonight. I drove with her here in New York, and discovered that she wants to work with the Saudi king on this, not against him.


AMANPOUR: How scary is it driving here in New York compared with defying law and order in Saudi Arabia and driving there?

MANAL AL-SHARIF, SAUDI ACTIVIST: It’s funny, it’s normal. Even the day I drove in Khobar City, it felt normal. It felt — this is normal. And it meant I wasn’t afraid. People asked me, were you afraid that day and I said no, it felt normal.

AMANPOUR: And yet —

AL-SHARIF: It’s here. The fear is here, where we’re crippled in our own imagination. There’s nothing scary about it.

AMANPOUR: What happened to you when you were caught driving?

AL-SHARIF: They did drive us to the police station, asked us to sign a pledge. We were there like for six hours interrogating me and my brother. And then they leave and then they called us back again, interrogation again. And then they sent me to jail with no charges.

AMANPOUR: They sent you to jail for driving?

AL-SHARIF: For driving.

AMANPOUR: Even no charges?

AL-SHARIF: One of the charges was embarrassing the country image because I posted that video on YouTube.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about the YouTube video. How did that idea come? Why did you post it? What were you saying?

AL-SHARIF: I was in Maine (ph) and our spring was going all over, and the (inaudible) social media. Said that was a good idea. Why not use the social media to get our voice heard? So there was like a new idea. There is no law —

AMANPOUR: There is no law banning you from driving?

AL-SHARIF: Unfortunately, no.

AMANPOUR: So is that traditional?


AMANPOUR: What message are you trying to send by driving?

AL-SHARIF: It’s a symbolic act of the woman right, we want to be full citizens. I’m educated. I have a job. And I should be able to — I should be trusted to drive my own car. It’s really bizarre that women like 57 percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, so we’re higher educated.

Women have higher education. Women are more than men for higher education. So those women are very well educated. But they’re not trusted for a simple act like this. And that goes on in all aspects of our life.

AMANPOUR: Let’s get out of the car for a moment and we’ll continue talking outside.

Let me ask you about something in the news, and that is the Olympic Games are coming up in London. And there’s been a lot of focus as to whether countries like Saudi Arabia will send female athletes.


AMANPOUR: Will they?


AL-SHARIF: Well, when they say that, I would love it. We don’t have athletes in the country. There’s no support for them. There’s no infrastructure. So how could you send athletes? From where are going to get those athletes? So we knew that because of the —

AMANPOUR: So you have no sportswomen in Saudi Arabia?

AL-SHARIF: No. And Olympic — the Olympic Committee (ph), they said Saudi Arabia doesn’t send women in their team this year? They would not be part in London Olympics. It was just a game. It was just a show to be able to be part of the Olympics. (Inaudible) —

AMANPOUR: So the men could compete?

AL-SHARIF: So the men. It’s very interesting. So we’ve always needed men to live. And now men need us women to be part of that.

AMANPOUR: Maybe that’s where your power is going to come from.

AL-SHARIF: It was — it’s — I don’t know. It’s really, I don’t know how things turn around, like what goes around, comes around.

Personally, I played basketball for five years in college in (inaudible). I went to (inaudible) College. And we have a gymnasium for girls. But it’s very — like we sneak around. It’s very undercover. It’s like you’re doing a — you’re committing a crime. We won all these trophies, all these medals, but no one knows about it, even my own family.

So I have to take my clothes, my —


AMANPOUR: — secret society.


AMANPOUR: Manal, I’m stunned by how things haven’t changed. Twenty years ago, I broke the first story of women trying to drive in Saudi Arabia. What happened to those women? It was terrible.

AL-SHARIF: In few words, they told them why (ph). They turned them into outcasts of the society.

AMANPOUR: Some of those women, the original drivers, have joined your cause.


AMANPOUR: Why? What did they tell you?

AL-SHARIF: We want you to lead this because we lost our life with the last 30 years and nothing changed. And they were very happy that we started this again.

AMANPOUR: So they said they lost their lives.

AL-SHARIF: Their life had been taken away from them. And it’s very sad that for a simple act like that, it turned to be against the whole society.

AMANPOUR: What are your tactics? If you don’t want to confront society head-on?

AL-SHARIF: We — from this day we started, we were very considerate to the conservative society that we are talking to. So we don’t want to create resistance and by shouting, by being aggressive. That would create this wall between us and the society. And they will not listen. We are not against (inaudible). (Inaudible) very pleased that we are Saudi (ph) women. We love our country and we’re not against the — we are not challenging authorities. We’re just challenging laws that are unjust to us.

AMANPOUR: Explain to me how men essentially direct your lives.

AL-SHARIF: So from the day we are born until the day we die, we have the men guardianship system. But male guardianship, for example, is enforced by law. And that’s the difficult and the long-run challenge for us and battle for us.

AMANPOUR: How does that system work?

AL-SHARIF: So no matter how old I am, I’m still minor (ph) until the day I die.

AMANPOUR: A minor?

AL-SHARIF: A minor. So I’m treated as a minor in every single aspect of my life. I need to get a male permission to study, to work, to get my papers, to leave the country.

AMANPOUR: And who — which males’ permission?

AL-SHARIF: It’s — that’s the funny thing. So if I’m not married, it’s my father. If I’m married, it’s moved, the male guardianship. The guardianship moves from my father to my husband.

AMANPOUR: And what if you have no father and no husband?

AL-SHARIF: It moves to my kids (ph) for example.

AMANPOUR: Your kid is your guardian?

AL-SHARIF: Yes. So it’s — can you imagine, you give birth to your own guardian.

It’s sad. So this is the — this is the system that we are — it’s put there and it’s for — enforced by law and this is the long and the most challenging battle that we are facing. I’m well educated. I’m independent. I have a job. Then I have to be treated as an adult. But if you do, let’s say, if you commit a crime or if you make a mistake, you are charged and you are treated like adult, not like a minor.


AL-SHARIF: Yes. So they punish you. They don’t punish your guardian.

AMANPOUR: We’ve been watching Saudi Arabia for decades now, wondering when things are going to change. King Abdullah says that he is for liberalizing some women’s rights. Is it ever going to happen? Do you believe your highest authority?

AL-SHARIF: King Abdullah is a true reformer. And he do — he does believe in women’s rights. And we can — we can see this. The problem is not only because — he can’t just enforce change from top or from bottom. It has to go the whole society should believe in that.

I have in my profile in Facebook, it says because my mother couldn’t change my present, I decided to change my daughter’s future. I didn’t have a daughter. What I meant, the previous generation couldn’t change our present. Our present.

So we decided to change the next generation future. And that’s happened now. So if it doesn’t happen in our age, at least this movement will put — will cast the foundation for those generations to come.

AMANPOUR: So what are you lobbying for? What are you struggling for now?

AL-SHARIF: Full citizenship.

AMANPOUR: Full citizenship?

AL-SHARIF: Just be treated as adults, not as a minor. I can take decisions in my life without needing to ask someone’s permission. Women are crippled with fear, and it’s here. It’s — this invisible monster that we created, it’s only exists here.

It’s like a wall that we built. And we never thought of even scratching the walls to find it a cardboard, not a real wall.


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