In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving. Yes, in 2013. Yes, because they’re women. Angry? YES. In defiance, equality campaigner Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of her behind the wheel. Despite death threats, she won’t be deterred. Here is one of the most inspirational women you’ll ever meet.
“The moment I first thought, ‘Oh God, what have I got myself into?’ was on my second day in jail, in May 2011 – my ‘crime’ was driving my car and encouraging other women to do the same by posting a clip of it on YouTube. I’d been allowed to call my family, who told me my five-year-old son – Abdullah, or Aboody for short – had been hospitalised. I was in a filthy, overcrowded cell. I was terrified, but I was also very, very angry.
Three days earlier I’d posted the ‘Saudi Girl Driving’ video online – 800,000 people saw it in just 24 hours. If you ask anyone across the world about Saudi Arabia, the one thing they usually know is that women are not allowed to drive. My protest – as part of my activism for equal-rights campaign group Right2Dignity – came about after I visited the doctor’s one night and couldn’t get a lift home. It was 9pm, and as I walked to find a taxi, I was shouted at by men driving past. One followed me for 15 minutes and only drove off after I threw a rock. I cried in anger, thinking, ‘This cannot be happening; I am 32, I have an international driving licence, a US licence, and a car I can’t drive.’
The next day, a colleague told me there’s no actual law banning women driving, it’s just a societal norm. I couldn’t believe it, so, a few days later, I went out and drove my car in protest, while my friend, Wajiha, filmed it.
It was one of those crazy moments where you just do something without thinking about the consequences. We drove for an hour and it was so much fun. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m driving and no one is stopping me!’ I wanted to see people’s reactions to witnessing a woman driving. I wanted to provoke men. I’d stop at traffic lights and make eye contact with them. I drove to a busy supermarket car park and got out. People were staring at me in disbelief.
Back home, I uploaded the clip to YouTube. My campaign group uses social media to effect change – I realised technology could help the cause, as Saudis are huge YouTube viewers and Tweeters. My experience ignited the idea for Right2Drive – we called for Saudi women with international driving licences to go out and drive on June 17, a month later.
Testing the waters, a few days later I got back into the driver’s seat, this time with my brother, to see if the authorities would act if poked again. They did. We were stopped and held at the police station for six hours, and I was made to sign a pledge to say I wouldn’t do it again – not because it was against the law, but because it was against social convention and I’d incited others.
We finally got home at midnight. Aboody was asleep upstairs and the house was full of my activist friends, eating pizza, working on laptops and watching TV. They were so excited – I was all over the news. We saw it as a huge victory; we’d established that no official law existed to stop women driving. However, at 2am, nine people knocked on the door to take us away again. I was frightened, but a work official called and assured me it was nothing to worry about and I should go. I didn’t even look into Aboody’s room before I left – I didn’t want to wake him and I was sure I’d see him in a few hours. It turns out they lied to me and I was thrown into jail, without trial.
I was released after nine days, but I had no idea getting into my car that day would offend so many people. People threatened to rape and kill me. They called my office screaming that I’d opened the doors of hell. My picture was on the front page of the newspapers. I was the most attacked woman in Saudi Arabia.
It’s caused me a lot of pain and I have had moments of feeling defeated. I was put under so much pressure at work – they didn’t like my campaigning – that in April 2012 I resigned. That meant I lost my home, too, as it was rented through the company. It would be impossible for me to get another job in Saudi Arabia, so I moved to Dubai with my new husband, Rafael, and set up my own information-security business.
I couldn’t get Aboody out of the country – my ex-husband would not give me my son, and the law in Saudi Arabia is always on the side of men. Aboody lives with his grandmother, a one-hour flight from me, and I go and see him every weekend. It’s very sad and I could just sit and cry and regret what’s happened to me, but I want to write a happy ending to this story for my son.
There are so many injustices that Right2Dignity is trying to change. Driving is just part of it. A woman who was caught driving recently said she was inspired by me, and I thought, ‘Yes!’ We Saudi women need to be courageous and speak up – first, with these small things, and then take action with the bigger things: it’s the ripple effect. We’re now calling for a law to criminalise domestic violence.
Years ago in Britain, women fought hard to live the way you do today, and that’s what we want in Saudi Arabia. Never take your freedoms for granted. I can’t change my reality right now, but I can affect what happens for women who come after me.”
More about Manal’s incredible story is in the June issue of GLAMOUR, out now.