“I want to document the truth for my son. My family is afraid. I have had death threats. But they know they cannot stop me. They messed with the wrong woman”
This article was taken from the January 2013 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
On May 19, 2011, Manal al-Sharif, a divorced mother of two and internet security consultant for Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national oil company, was filmed by a friend driving through the city of Khobar. She posted the eight-minute video on YouTube, and in it she says in Arabic: “We are ignorant and illiterate when it comes to driving. You’ll find a woman with a PhD and she doesn’t know how to drive. We want change in the country.”
Within two days the video was watched 600,000 times on YouTube. Then she was arrested.
“The religious police came into my house at 2am,” Al-Sharif, 33, told the Wired 2012 conference in London last October. “They took me and my brother. I was detained for nine days. My picture was on the front of all the newspapers, all saying horrible things about me.”
In Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif’s bravery emboldened an existing campaign, Women2Drive, which promotes women’s right to drive — something that’s banned.
“There’s no actual law — it’s an unwritten law,” says al-Sharif. “I was mad, because the day before I had to walk for 40 minutes from my clinic to my house and cars were honking and following me.”
For al-Sharif, the real issue is not just driving, but human rights.
“For instance, in Saudi Arabia all women, even married ones, need permission from a male guardian to work or study,” she says.
According to her, the movement is making a difference. In September 2011, King Abdullah gave women the vote. Last May, al-Sharif was awarded the Václav Havel prize for creative dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
“I asked my bosses for permission to go to the ceremony in Oslo,” she says. “They refused and told me that they didn’t want their name associated with me. I resigned.” Now living in Dubai, al-Sharif is currently taking time off to write a book, entitled Kingdom of Saudi Men.
“So many lies have been told about what I did,” she says. “I want to document the truth for my son. My family is afraid. I have had death threats. But they know they cannot stop me. They messed with the wrong woman.”