Driving for Freedom – My Speech in Oslo Freedom Forum
“The struggle is not about driving a car,
the struggle is about being in the driver’s seat of our own destiny”
I would like to explain the life of my generation through 2 chapters in my life:
1979: The year that changed the world as we knew it
Fire in The Holy Mosque in Mecca, 1979
Our generation is called the Sahwa or Awakening Generation. Our story starts with the year I was born in, 1979.
that same year a group of men led by the militant Juhayman seized the holy mosque in Mecca, the holiest shrine for Muslims in the world. The siege was to protest the House of Saud’s policies of Westernization. Saudi authorities used heavily-armed forces to end the siege. They publicly beheaded Juhayman and other 46 men.
This overlooked episode of modern history was described as the deadliest terrorist attack prior to 9/11. This forgotten event shaped my generation’s life and changed the world, into the one we know today.
A Very Rare Picture of Juhayman (means Angry Face)
Before this event, Saudi the recent founded country was changing rapidly and adopting the modern civilized life (1). Things were moving forward in this part of the world until the shocking event of Juhayman and his men. The Saudi rulers, anxious to maintain the loyalty of the extremists and to prevent another uprising, quickly moved to roll back the “immoral” liberties that had been tolerated in previous years.
Just like Juhayman, those extremists had long been upset with the gradual loosening of restrictions on women. In the weeks after the Mecca uprising female announcers were removed from Saudi TV, pictures of women were banned from appearing in any printings, employment of women was narrowed to very few places (like education and health care), cinemas were closed, music was banned, and separation between genders was strictly enforced everywhere from public places, government offices, banks, schools, to even houses. Every Saudi house now has two entrances, one for men and one for women.
Petrodollars poured into the extremists’ budgets, and they spread religious education and missionary organizations around the world, many of which preached hatred of the infidel, dedication to global Jihad, and rejection of anyone who does not share the same ideals.
The Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice—the religious police—was also given a free hand in society.
They beheaded a monster, but enshrined his ideology of hate!
A Bullet in Time
Ka’aba in Hajj Time
Saudi authorities tried their best to make people forget the Siege of Mecca. They removed all articles and reports talking about it. We were not allowed to even ask what happened. It was one of the first taboos in Saudi.
The first time I heard of Juhayman, I was a kid performing tawaf with my mother, where you walk in circles around the holy Ka’aba. It was Hajj time when the Ka’aba’s curtains are lifted up. My mom pointed to a hole on the walls of Ka’aba and said, “That’s a bullet hole from Juhayman’s time”. Juhayman was the name that brought terror to the people of Mecca and the Muslims around the world.
For me that hole went much deeper than walls. It was a hole in time we all fell in, and kept going backward.
The 80s: The awakening of the beast
The new extremists were very powerful, promoting their ideas and enforcing everyone to abide by their strict rules. Free leaflets, booklets, cassettes, books calling for dismissing non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula and proclaiming Jihad in Afghanistan an individual duty of every Muslim, were distributed everywhere.
We used to distribute those materials to please God. Thousands of young men were encouraged and financially supported to join the holy jihad in Afghanistan. A 22-year-old man was amongst those fighters; his name was Osama Bin Ladin.
Those fighters at that time were our heroes!
According to Saudi Ulema’s Interpretation of Sharia Laws,
women should be covered head to toe in black
As women, we were raised to listen, follow, and never ask why. If you don’t follow the rules, we were taught that we would burn in hell fire in our grave and in the afterlife. Many nights I spent in tears, trying to do all I could to please God, to follow the rules. I thought it would have been much easier to just die, because living with these rules was simply impossible:
-As a woman I was taught that if I left home I would be fully responsible for any evil that happened, because men can’t control their instincts. I am the seductive fruit, they said, and I would seduce men in all my shapes and forms. So, my place should be home.
-I was taught that as a woman I am only Awra (sinful to expose). My face was Awra, my voice was Awra, even my name was Awra. I started covering fully top to toe in black when I was 10 years old.
-It was shameful to call the woman with her name or to know someone’s mother/sister/wife’s name. So women are called “mother of” her son’s name or “wife of” her husband’s name. (the society is trying hard to break through it)
-Women had no identification papers with a picture on it except passports.
-We have to get permission from our appointed male guardian in every aspect of our lives (to get healthcare, to study, to work, to get government papers, to travel, to marry, even to exist) (All still effective except the permission to work that was lift recently)
-No women couldn’t play a sport (still effective)
-Only two professions were licensed for women: pharmacist and doctor. There are no Saudi female lawyers, no civil engineers, no engineering schools for females. (still effective)
-And of course, women couldn’t drive (still effective)
They stole our lives with one lie: we are doing all this to protect you from the prying eyes of men; you deserve to be treated like a “Queen”, and this is how a queen is treated.
We were faceless, voiceless, and nameless, we were the invisible women.
Nov 6th, 1990
I was just 11 when the news broke all over the country that 47 women had challenged the ban on women driving in Riyadh. The announcer on TV announced days later that, according to the recent Fatwa of Sheikh Bin Baz, the grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, that women driving was haram–forbidden in Islam. The Ministry of Interior warned everyone that women were not allowed to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Horrible rumors were spreading about those 47 women, and they were called awful names. We, as kids, had been told those women were bad and we should never be like them. For the next 22 years, talking about this subject was banned.
Another taboo was created: Women Driving
1996: Khober Towers Bombing
The Khobar Towers were bombed on June 25, 1996, and according to the Saudi government, the attack was carried out by “Saudi Islamic militants, including many veterans of the Afghan War.” 19 U.S. air force personnel and 1 Saudi were killed, and 372 people were injured.
I remember my mother gasping: “Juhayman is back!” I remember not sympathizing with the deaths.
I was only 17, but I used to think like a terrorist.
2000: Our 1st window to the outside world
Public access to the Internet in Saudi finally debuted in 1999. I had access to the Internet for the first time in 2000. I was thirsty to learn about what was out there. I kept reading about other religions and cultures. I met lots of people from all over the world on the Internet.
I realized how small the box I lived in when I stepped out of it. I started slowly losing my phobia of getting my pure beliefs polluted.
“There is Something Missing in my Heart”
Let me exaplain how extreme I was and how I changed through two stories:
I love drawing, but I had to burn all my sketches one day when they told us in school that drawing people and animals is a sin and God will punish us harshly for that. I watched years of work burn before my eyes, while crying inside “this is so unfair”.
My second story:
Do you remember the first time you ever listened to a song? More specifically, do you remember the first song you ever listened to? Probably not.
I remember both–the first time I allowed myself to listen to a song was the year 2000, and the song was “Show me the Meaning of Being Lonely” by Backstreet Boys. I was 21 years old. As insignificant event as it might sound to you, it was a significant change in my life, if you knew that I used to burn my brother’s music cassettes in the oven because we have were taught that they are “Satan’s Flutes” and a path to adultery (2).
When I heard that song it sounded anything but evil to me. It was so beautiful, so angelic, and so pure. I tried to be good according to their rules but I failed for the fist time in my life. For 21 years, I was never good enough, never pure enough. No matter how hard I tried to abide by every possible rule I was taught. I finally lowered my guards and surrendered!
Only then I realized how lonely I was.. in the world I isloated myself into..
I realized that breaking free from the internal chains is harder than breaking free from the external
9/11: The Turning Point
When September 11 happened, extremists viewed it as God’s punishment to America. When I first got the news, I was confused about which side to take. I was brought up to hate any non-Muslims or anyone who doesn’t practice Islam as we view it. Those, we are told, are our enemies and must be eliminated from this world.
When I watched the breaking news, I saw a man throwing himself from one of the towers to escape the fire. The horrifying scene shocked me deeply. Later on, Al-Qaeda announced their responsibility of these attacks. My heroes were nothing but horrifying bloody monsters. And questions started.
Saudi singularity: Saudi “Khososyah” or singularity is turning everything that is normal to abnormal, then asking the question what went wrong? And then trying to find a way to fix it.
After 9/11 in Saudi
A few months after that horrifying event, Saudi authorities, anxious again about security, started issuing women IDs. It was the fist time we women were being recognized as citizens. Still, the appointed male guardian needs to give his women the permission to get ID.
A massive number of terrorists attack swept Saudi during the following years, leaving everyone in deep shock. We were all asking what went wrong?!
The questions where growing bigger and bitter. No religion on earth can be this bloody, this cruel, this merciless. Islam is the religion of peace, respecting the other, accepting differences, freedom of speech and belief. The extremist interpretation misshaped Islam badly and used it to spread hatred and violence. And now we are the ones to pay the price.
Drive Your Own Life
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Led by personal struggle, realizing there is no law to ban us from driving, we started women2drive campaign.
One night I was leaving my doctor’s clinic in Al-Khober at 9 pm, and I couldn’t find a ride back home. A car kept chasing me, and I was almost kidnapped. The next day at work, I was horrified and angry and I complained to my colleague how it’s frustrating that I have a driver’s license but I’m not allowed to drive, just because I’m a woman. He broke the good/bad news in my face: “But there is no law banning you from driving”.
That ignited the whole idea in my mind of starting a campaign to call women to get behind the wheel and drive on June 17th, 2011. We encouraged women with international driver’s licenses only to participate, as we didn’t want accidents that day. We started a Facebook page, followed by a Twitter account and a 7-minute video I recorded using my webcam I posted it on YouTube to explain who we are and the idea behind June 17th. I showed my face, I spoke with my voice, I used my real name. For me, the time of fear and silence was over. I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman. I was there to speak up for myself.
Later that month, I recorded a video of myself driving in the city of Khobar and posted it on YouTube. It got 700,000 views on the first day. A day later I was arrested for driving and sent to jail for 9 days. Newspapers and TV were closely following my story—it broke a huge riot around the country, it became a hot topic at every house and every gathering place. Calls to send me to a trial where roaring. There were even calls to flog me in a public place to make me an example to other women. I was called all names in the book for that simple act: whore, outcast, licentious, immoral, rebellious, disobedient, Iran agenda, Westernized, traitor, double agent, etc. Rumors of all kind spread everywhere. The hardest thing wasn’t facing what I did, it was facing what I didn’t do.
On June 17th the streets were packed with police cars and religious police SUVs to scare anyone who thought to drive that day. Despite all that pressure, some 100 women broke the ban and drove on June 17. None were arrested. we broke the taboo.
On November 15th 2011, I filed the first lawsuit against the Saudi General Directorate of Traffic in the administrative court for not issuing me a driver’s license.
We can talk freely now in the media and newspapers about women driving. Women themselves are not the same anymore. We united for the first time, the previous generation and this generation. We are using positive pressure to push for change. We are called now “My Right to Dignity,” calling for full citizenship for the Saudi Women, and ending decades of male guardianship.
They Messed up with the Wrong Woman
I was and still faced with one cruel organized smearing campaign. I defended myself not by words but by actions.
I was persistent, patient, and respectful to everyone even those who harmed me the most. Friends and family insisted that I sue those who publish and say lies about me, I told them it’s not time yet. A year later, the same newspapers that cracked down on me harshly are publishing the news of my international honoring and awards. My mother shed many tears facing all kind of attacks on her daughter. I called her that day when the local newspaper that was the worst in attacking me finally published a small article about me; with the title “Manal is a role model for the Saudi women”. The article came after announcing my name amongst the Time 100 most influential people in the world. I told my mother: “here is your rehabilitation”. Mom had tears that day, but a different kind of tears for the first time in a year; they were the tears of pride and joy.
I always tell my mother, “they might handcuff me and send me behind jail bars, but I will never accept them putting cuffs on my mind. They can break my bones mom, but they can never break my soul”.
The Time of Silence is Over
Years of being passive, whispering complaints with so many years of signing petitions and waiting for a response that would never come, we decided finally that the time of silence is over. We took an action to change our reality. Waiting will result in nothing but more waiting and frustration.
But sadly even after a year later, women are still waiting for a miracle to happen to change their reality; they are still waiting for a royal decree to lift the ban on women driving. They don’t know it will never come to them. It’s up to them to take the key and go behind the wheel and just drive, as simple as it sounds, as simple as it is.
I believe that children cannot be free if their mothers are not free, parents cannot be free if their daughters are not free, husbands cannot be free if their wives cannot be free, society is nothing if women are nothing.
For me, freedom starts within. Here (my heart) I know I am free, but there, in Saudi, I am certain the struggle has just began, the struggle will end but I am not sure when, the struggle is not about driving a car, the struggle is about being in the driver’s seat of our own destiny, about being free not just to dream but free to live.
(1) Saudi is considered the oil hub with the world’s largest oil reserves and a population of 26 million.
(2) مزامير الشيطان و بريد الزنا
- The Siege of Mecca, by Yaroslav Trofimov
- Inside The Kingdom, by Robert Lacy
- Human Rights Watch- World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia