Good morning, my name is Manal al Sharif, I come from the kingdom of Saudi men…
It is an immense and totally unexpected honor to be here, among all of you, and in the presence of so many people I admire and have looked up to. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Yang Jianli, Marina Nemat, you are all role models for me. You are living proof that the struggle is worth it and that it takes both determination and patience to move the mountains that hinder our path to true freedom and prosperity.
If someone told me a year ago that I would be standing here today I would not have believed it. Back then I was just a single mom who worked as an information security specialist to support her family. Although, I am unemployed today, I am happier and more filled with purpose than ever.
Recently I have I learnt that speaking out against the status quo is indeed the most difficult thing to do.
In my case, the status quo I had challenged was my nation’s ban on women driving. For outsiders the issue is hard to grapple with. Few can understand the depth of the issue as it is such a non issue in the rest of the world. But in Saudi Arabia women driving goes beyond the mundane matter of a woman getting her hands on the wheel. It is all about the political, social and economical consequences of lifting such ban.
The freedom of movement that lifting the ban implies is what has the conservative factions within our society so rigid about maintaining it. The money raked from importing over a million foreign drivers from South East Asia to drive women around is an opportunity for profit that many are not willing to relinquish. And more importantly, calls for change from the people are not welcomed at all in an absolute monarchy that demands allegiance from its citizens by professing to be the sole protectors of their faith and well-fare.
This might explain the backlash I got when I uploaded a YouTube video in which I talked – while driving – about lifting the ban and proposed June 17th as a day to begin getting our country used to seeing women in the driver’s seat. I was under the false impression that Saudi society was opening up and that the government was also pushing towards more opportunities for women.
But I guess I miscalculated. For my ‘crime’ I was jailed for nine days while the whole country went into a frenzy, some criticizing and some in support. Many within the religious establishment took the Friday prayer sermon as an opportunity to condemn me. They called me a traitor, an evil doer, a conspirator and one cleric went as far as to say that I should have been flogged.
Those who saw fit to jail me unintentionally did a great deal to insure the success of theJune 17th movement; tens of women across the country took to the wheel with many of them uploading their own videos on YouTube. These were women I had never met, and who had never heard about me before I was jailed. They went out to join theJune 17th initiative and risked jail themselves. I am happy to say that sanity prevailed and not a single woman was jailed that day, yet we did get the first ever ticket issued to a woman in the history of Saudi.
For all my tech savvy, just a few years ago, I would never have been able to reach out – or to offend – so many of my countrymen and women. In an absolute monarchy where people are imprisoned without charge – sometimes for years, for starting an NGO, protesting in the streets or even publishing an essay that questions the government, there were no platforms from which average citizens could air their views.
Not until social media came along. What most in the world use for information, recreation and to stay in touch with family and friends, in Saudi Arabia has become a democratic sandbox, our personal bully pulpit, and yes, our comfort blanket and shield.
Social media has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the June 17th initiative grew into a whole campaign that encompassed not only the ban on women driving but so much more. Through social media a fluid and grass-root campaign was born, the Right to Dignity campaign, whose members have grown to thousands of Saudi men and women across the country. The only way that the campaign communicates with its members is through social media.
And since the local press will not cover our demands, we send our press releases, petitions and statements through Twitter. We would not have gotten very far without Twitter.
Some people have called our movement the Saudi Women’s Spring. But, let’s be serious, we are still way behind the starting point of those revolutions. 50% of our population is yet to achieve basic rights that others take for granted as they fight for real democracy.
Yet, I’m happy to report some positive changes have accrued in the last year:
Although physical education is still not a part of the state girl schools’ curriculum and access to sports facilities is rare for Saudi women, I’m happy that we’ve finally, as you’ve all probably heard, had the historic achievement of opening the door and having Saudi women compete in the Olympics.
In June 2011, King Abdullah decreed that women would be allowed to work openly in retail and take jobs such as sales clerks and cashiers. Although transportation and guardianship laws remain an obstacle in the way of women empowerment, this decree has allowed over 40 thousand women a means of supporting themselves and their families.
In September 2011, King Abdullah issued another landmark decree that women will have the right to stand and vote in future local elections and join the advisory Shura council as full members. Though there is no denying that it remains a stick in the throat for most Saudis that all 150 members of the council are appointed by the king rather than voted in by the people.
As of 2012 we have had 131 thousands undergraduate and postgraduate students studying abroad, almost half of them are girls despite the fact that many of the professions they are studying for are unlicensed for women in Saudi, such as practicing law. I hope that by the time they finish and come home that obstacle will be removed and the nation can take full advantage of their investment.
Beyond our borders we have received all kinds of solidarity that I hope Saudi authorities do not interpret as a challenge but as encouragement. Among many things I’d like to mention two:
I’m particularly proud of being the recipient of the Havel Prize which I received in Oslo earlier this year. And was move by the work of many artists who showed solidarity with our movement such as the beautiful pop star MIA and her song “Bad Girls”.
Like I said before, in this young absolute monarchy of only 80 years there is very little room for average citizens to voice their concerns or gain a platform. There are no representatives of the people with executive power and a push for change has traditionally either been imposed from the top down or pushed for through tribal and religious establishments that women are completely excluded from.
Social media and speeches like the one I’m giving right now are the main tools that are available to Saudi women who want to absolve the gender apartheid and build a better and stronger Saudi Arabia where every citizen, regardless of sex, is treated with dignity and respect.
The Right to Dignity campaign and I work towards a Saudi where an adult woman won’t have to need her son’s permission to travel, where women will not need the escort of their guardian abuser to leave the safe house they escaped him to, a Saudi where women can easily obtain a means of supporting themselves, a Saudi where it is unquestionable that a girl has a right to her childhood. All we want is a Saudi Arabia that respects the humanity of women.
I have been told before ( it’s not the right time, if you love your country you must wait)..
I would like to answer them:
I’m proud to be a Saudi women and because I love my country I will not wait. Women rights is not a special interest or a privilege. Women rights or lack of them affects the whole society! Societies that keep women in the back seat, will always be on the wrong side of history.