Manal al-Sharif got behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. Then she met the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
‘You know when you have a bird, and it’s been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn’t want to leave. It was that moment.”
This is how Manal al-Sharif felt the first time she sat behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s taboo against women driving is only rarely broken. To hear her recount the experience is as thrilling as it must have been to sit in the passenger seat beside her. Well, almost.
Ms. Sharif says her moment of hesitation didn’t last long. She pressed the gas pedal and in an instant her Cadillac SUV rolled forward. She spent the next hour circling the streets of Khobar, in the kingdom’s eastern province, while a friend used an iPhone camera to record the journey.
It was May 2011, when much of the Middle East was convulsed with popular uprisings. Saudi women’s-rights activists were stirring, too. They wondered if the Arab Spring would mark the end of the kingdom’s ban on women driving. “Everyone around me was complaining about the ban but no one was doing anything,” Ms. Sharif says. “The Arab Spring was happening all around us, so that inspired me to say, ‘Let’s call for an action instead of complaining.’ “
The campaign started with a Facebook FB -2.27% page urging Saudi women to drive on a designated day, June 17, 2011. At first the page created great enthusiasm among activists. But then critics began injecting fear on and off the page. “The opponents were saying that ‘there are wolves in the street, and they will rape you if you drive,’ ” Ms. Sharif recalls. “There needed to be one person who could break that wall, to make the others understand that ‘it’s OK, you can drive in the street. No one will rape you.’ “
Ms. Sharif resolved to be that person, and the video she posted of herself driving around Khobar on May 17 became an instant YouTube hit. The news spread across Saudi media, too, and not all of the reactions were positive. Ms. Sharif received threatening phone calls and emails. “You have just opened the gates of hell on yourself,” said an Islamist cleric. “Your grave is waiting,” read one email.
Aramco, the national oil company where she was working as a computer-security consultant at the time, wasn’t pleased, either. Ms. Sharif recalls that her manager scolded her: “What the hell are you doing?” In response, Ms. Sharif requested two weeks off. Before leaving on vacation, however, she wrote a message to her boss on an office blackboard: “2011. Mark this year. It will change every single rule that you know. You cannot lecture me about what I’m doing.”
It was a stunning act of defiance in a country that takes very seriously the Quran’s teaching: “Men are in charge of women.” But less than a week after her first outing, Ms. Sharif got behind the wheel again, this time accompanied by her brother and his wife and child. “Where are the traffic police?” she recalls asking her brother as she put pedal to the metal once more. A rumor had been circulating that, since the driving ban isn’t codified in law, the police wouldn’t confront female drivers. “I wanted to test this,” she says.
The rumor was wrong. As she recounts, a traffic officer stopped the car, and soon members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Saudi morality police, surrounded the car. “Girl!” screamed one. “Get out! We don’t allow women to drive!” Ms. Sharif and her brother were arrested and detained for six hours, during which time she stood her ground.
“Sir, what law did I break?” she recalls repeatedly asking her interrogators. “You didn’t break any law,” they’d say. “You violated orf“—custom.
The siblings were released but Ms. Sharif was rearrested a day later. She was detained for over a week and released only after her father personally pleaded with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for a pardon and pledged to forbid his daughter ever to drive again in the kingdom. Even now, recounting the story at New York’s JFK Airport while she waits to board a flight to Dubai, Ms. Sharif’s voice trembles with anger: “I was just driving a car!”
Manal al-Sharif was born in the holy city of Mecca to a family of “conservative” but “regular Muslims,” as she puts it. “Dad would listen to music,” she says. “He would wait for new albums by Umm Kulthum,” a widely popular Egyptian pop singer. “My aunt used to wear golden bracelets, and she used to show her hair under her pinkhijab.”
The family’s moderate attitudes were remnants of a way of life that came under severe attack in 1979, the year Ms. Sharif was born. It was a turbulent moment in the region. In Iran, Shiite radicals deposed a socially permissive autocracy and began building a repressive Islamic theocracy. In November 1979 in Saudi Arabia, a band of Sunni jihadis took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing hundreds of worshipers and security forces. It took two weeks and the help of French commandos to break the siege.
The incident, infidel rescuers included, was a huge embarrassment for the reigning al-Saud dynasty, whose monarchs style themselves as “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques.” To prevent future jihadi attacks, “the government did everything it could to please the fundamentalists,” Ms. Sharif says. “It gave them control over education and women. So women were removed from all public life in Saudi Arabia, and there is now complete separation between the genders.”
The kingdom had always been deeply religious. Yet it was only after the 1979 siege that the al-Saud began promoting radical Islam at home and abroad as a way of staving off challenges to their own legitimacy. Thus was born what former Wall Street Journal publisher and author Karen Elliott House identifies in her book “On Saudi Arabia” as “Islam Inc.”—the symbiosis of clerical obscurantism and oil riches that keeps the al-Saud in power.
One result is a society where women make up just 12% of the workforce and own 5% of businesses, a country where 15 young girls were doomed to perish in a 2002 schoolhouse fire after the morality police prevented their rescue because the students were improperly dressed.
Ms. Sharif is in many ways a product of this system, including the public schools she attended in the 1980s and ’90s. “They brainwashed kids,” she recalls. “They told us, ‘This is Islam, and it is our time to rule the world again.’ So you were brought up in an atmosphere that made you go for extremism, for hatred of the other, and to fear people who are conspiring against Muslims—against us.”
As she grew older, Ms. Sharif started questioning the authorities who would “use the word of God to control people who are like my family.” She came to see the painful impact of Islamist ideology on women. Her aunt, for example, once fond of colorful clothes and jewelry, was cowed. She would “listen to these fundamentalist lectures and cry, saying ‘it’s haram to show your face.’ She cried and changed everything about herself.”
Then there was the driving ban. Ms. Sharif came to despise the fact that “we’re proudly known as the country where women can’t drive.” In 1990, an earlier generation of women tried, and failed, to challenge the ban. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, about 40 Saudi women organized a “drive-in” protest. They argued that amid a national emergency, when their male guardians might not be available, Saudi women must be permitted to drive.
Predictably, the 1990 drive-ins enraged the religious establishment. “When I was a kid they sent brochures all around the country, with the names of the women and their house numbers, encouraging people to call them and tell them to come back to Islam,” Ms. Sharif says. “They said these women had sex with American troops. They said they took off their hijabs and burned them.”
Why persist today in the face of still-vicious opposition? Because the campaign to overturn the ban is about more than driving. “Women’s rights are nothing but a part of the bigger picture, which is human rights,” Ms. Sharif says. “Women are trusted with the lives of their kids, even serve as teachers and doctors, but they aren’t trusted with their own lives.”
Ms. Sharif has paid a price for living her own life. After she gave a speech about her activism at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, where she was awarded the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, she and her family came under renewed pressure from Islamists. Things got worse when video of the speech went viral on YouTube.
“They said no one will embrace Islam after watching this speech, because what I showed is a violent religion. But what I showed was my personal story,” she says, adding that it is “an insult to Islam, to any religion,” to suggest that it can be undermined by a personal story.
Ms. Sharif was pushed out of her job in May 2012 and has since relocated to Dubai, where she lives with her Brazilian husband, Rafael. The couple met in 2010 when they were both working for Aramco. She needed permission from Saudi Arabia’s interior minister to marry a non-Saudi, says Ms. Sharif, who has a 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. “It’s your personal life, and they get their noses into it even at that level.”
The minister rejected Ms. Sharif’s request to marry a foreigner, and her ex-husband bars her son from traveling outside the kingdom with her, so she can see him only by visiting from Dubai every weekend. “It’s the worst thing flying back to Saudi Arabia. I’m on the surveillance list, so every time I go, they stop me and they take more information. They monitor my travel.”
The al-Saud rulers, she says, are cracking down on dissidents out of fear that the Arab Spring’s reverberations might spread to the kingdom. In early March, two founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association received long jail sentences for, among other things, starting an unlicensed human-rights organization. The arrests, she says are meant “to shush the others, because they talk about the same things we talk about: constitutional monarchy, political parties, having political rights. So they take these people and make an example out of them.”
The sentences were handed down less than a week after new Secretary of State John Kerry visited the kingdom. His visit was a disappointment for Ms. Sharif and others who share her outlook. “He just praised Saudi Arabia for appointing 30 women to the unelected Shura council,” she says of Mr. Kerry. “It’s a fake body anyway, a powerless body. You can’t praise something that’s not tangible, that’s merely a cosmetic change.” If American officials aren’t willing to criticize the Saudis on their rights record, she says, “at least they shouldn’t praise them.”
As our interview ends, one question remains: Has Ms. Sharif gotten behind the wheel of a car in the kingdom since the heady days of her campaign? “Yes, I drove again,” she says. “I’m a normal woman, a normal person, and I just want to drive.”
This bird won’t be returning to its cage anytime soon.
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.
A version of this article appeared March 23, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Woman Who Dared to Drive.