Sydney Opera House All About Women Festival


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I gave this speech on March 4th, 2018. My session was the first session to sell out in all of the festivals and my book was sold out that day. I did cry when I reached the part about my mother as it was just 6 days after her second anniversary. The speech wasn’t recorded but here is the text.

https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/past-events/all-about-women-home/2018/manal-al-sharif.html

https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/all-about-women-home/news-all-about-women/manal-al-sharif.html

Assalamu Alaikum everyone (peace be upon you)…

 

Today, March 4th also marks the first anniversary of my arrival in Australia. Today, allow me to speak woman to women, with just a few days to go until International Women’s Day.

 

In the aftermath of the Women2Drive campaign in 2011, I was targeted by the government, local media, and radicals. I couldn’t believe the hate being targeted at one woman and her family for taking a stand and breaking a taboo… I was systematically targeted at work, in the media, in the mosques and the streets. I couldn’t give interviews or speak at any venues. I was pressured to shut up.  Despite this, I kept using my social media accounts and blog to publicize the institutionalized oppression of my women in my country. One time, my son was beaten at school, just for being my son. And that’s when I decided to write my story for him.

 

People would go to my parents; threaten them; tell them to discipline their wayward daughter. At the lowest point, my father had to sit in a Friday sermon while the Imam condemned women who wanted to drive as “whores”. He said that I, Manal al-Sharif, was their leader; that I was seeking to corrupt Muslim women and disrupt social order by calling for women to sit at the wheel. Mama would call me regularly in tears, asking me to stop, because my parents were going through so much because of my actions, and they were so afraid that I would be put in jail again.. With a broken heart, I told her every time: “Mama, I will stop only when the first Saudi driver’s license is issued to a woman”.

 

In 2012, I was awarded the Vaclav Havel Award for creative dissent and was invited to give the acceptance speech in Oslo. This was my first encounter with the word “dissent” in English, and I had to check the dictionary to see what it meant. My employer, which was the state-owned Saudi oil company and the largest producer of crude oil in the world, threatened to fire me if I dared to attend this or any other non-work-related event. An executive told me: “We don’t want our name to be associated with you. You’ve already had a final warning about your dismissal… This time it will be the end.” When I left his office, I sent a letter resigning from my 10-year role as an engineer – and as one of the founding members of my company’s Information Security Department.

 

Losing my job wasn’t the only upshot of speaking in Oslo. Ten minutes before appearing on stage, I received a message saying that the interest-free company loan to buy my house, which I had been previously been approved for, would no longer be granted. Afterward, I received thousands of tweets branding me a traitor. A fatwa – a religious ruling – was issued, stating that I was no longer Muslim. Since fatwas have the same power as laws in Saudi Arabia, this meant that I was in physical danger, as well as being homeless, jobless and financially vulnerable. All this for speaking up in Oslo about the role of radical Islam, which I believe has dragged us backward.

 

 

I left my country to neighboring Dubai for fear of my own safety back in 2012, got married for the second time and had a second child. My second son has never seen my homeland or his half-brother from my previous marriage since our marriage was never approved by the Saudi government.

 

Since we were stuck between countries and permits that never came – mostly for my crime of being an activist – we ended up applying for a work permit in Australia. As I was packing our things, I was confronted repeatedly with the question “Why Australia?”. It wasn’t until this year that I knew why.

 

As a Saudi woman, I grew up with a big list of things I wasn’t allowed to do – in fact, it’s probably quicker to list the things I could do. But I always found ways to do them anyway. The West tends to focus on the things Saudi women aren’t allowed to do; instead, I’d like to ask them to focus on the things we have fought to do.

 

Here are the most courageous, most rebellious and most difficult challenges I have undertaken in my life:

  • The most courageous thing I’ve ever done wasn’t uncovering my face or spending ten years working in an all-male environment. The most courageous act of my life was breaking the chains within me and finding the strength to fight my own battles.

 

  • The most rebellious thing I’ve ever done wasn’t leading the women2drive campaign. The most rebellious thing I’ve done was simply to be myself… In this world, being yourself is the bravest thing a woman can do. We are reminded daily of how we should be, how we should look, talk or think; the role models we should follow… It’s as if the world comes falling down when we dare to celebrate our uniqueness!

 

  • The most difficult challenge of my life wasn’t to live as a survivor of child FGM, overseen by my parents, or to leave a physically, verbally and mentally abusive marriage, or to face the hatred of an entire society for leading the women2drive campaign. It was to forgive and let go of those who hurt me, whether that be my parents, my ex-husband or my opponents.

 

I have proudly been called disrespectful for defying laws that disrespected me. I have been proudly called a corruptor for encouraging my fellow Saudi women to speak up for themselves. I have proudly been called a traitor to the nation and the faith for challenging the degrading narrative of women in our textbooks and teachings.

 

For the last five years, I have had two faces. In my own country, I’ve been the villain – the corrupt woman who challenged religion and was deserving of hate. To the outside world, I’ve been a hero.

 

Neither of these images affected me because I knew my true purpose, my identity and what I believed in. For me, dissidents are the true patriots: those who care enough about their country and sacrifice everything to try to change it for the better. It’s not about waiting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but about carrying your purpose with you as your torch to guide your way; to stop you getting diverted by criticism or by praise.

 

Here in Australia, for the first time in my 38 years, I’m completely free to be myself with no societal or religious constraints or expectations. There is no box that I am required to fit into, no-one to call me disrespectful for wanting to follow my dreams and aspirations. It’s my hope that one day, I can feel the same in my own home country. For me, home is the place where you are free to be yourself without having to ask for anyone’s permission. I’m certain that moving to Sydney was the right decision.

 

It was 5 AM in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, on the morning of September 27, 2017, although it was still the evening of September 26 in Saudi Arabia. I woke up to give my son, Daniel Hamza, his medicine after a recent ear surgery and quickly double-checked the time on my mobile phone. At that moment, a BBC breaking news alert flashed across the glowing screen: Saudi Arabia to lift driving ban on women. I thought my sleepy eyes must have made a mistake, so I refreshed my phone and read it again. Then I read it one more time just to be sure, after which I broke into tears of joy. Within a minute, my phone went crazy; my email was swamped with interview requests from all over the world. Almost everyone I knew was contacting me, as well as many people I didn’t.

 

In spite of all this, the only person I wanted to talk to at that moment was Mama. I always knew, deep inside me, that the day of women driving would come. What I didn’t know was that she would not be there to celebrate it with me. She had passed away with a great deal of pain in her heart because her daughter had driven a car and been publicly shamed throughout Saudi Arabia. Now that taboo would be lifted, and at that moment, I missed her more than ever.

 

It took 27 years from the first attempt to lift the driving ban to that historic day. We must all pay our respects to the women and men who have waged this struggle. Women campaigning to end this ban have lost their freedom, their jobs, have jeopardized their safety, and have had their cars confiscated and held. They have been harassed and jailed, and their families have been targeted. They have been called every degrading name under the sun and been viciously attacked. They have lost their lives as they knew them for daring to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia.
But no more. Things started to change in 2011, with the start of the  #Women2Drive movement. The struggle continued with further campaigns, including the 2013 campaign led by the Saudi blogger, Dr. Eman Alnafjan. In 2014, another activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul, attempted to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi in her car. She was joined by Saudi journalist Maysa Al-Amoudi.  Both were arrested and sent to jail for 72 days. Now, I hope that a woman will never again be jailed again for getting behind the wheel of a car.

 

Women’s rights activists must continue to monitor how the law is implemented and campaign to abolish the male guardianship law, which forbids women to travel, marry or even leave prison without the permission of a designated male guardian – a truly new form of slavery targeting women.

 

We must ask for nothing short of full equality for women. Driving is only the first step to ending other unjust laws that treat Saudi women as minors and as not trustworthy to determine their own destiny.

 

It has been interesting for me to listen to reporters’ questions and to read their analysis of why the driving ban was lifted. There are many theories, including that it was done to distract international media attention from the crisis in Yemen and a Saudi economy on the brink of bankruptcy. Amid this speculation, I will add my own: it is part of a power game. I cannot ignore the irony of the fact that the Saudi King who lifted the driving ban is the same man who was the governor of Riyadh when the 47 women drivers protested the ban in 1990. He took harsh actions against these women and turned a blind eye as the religious establishment destroyed their lives and reputations, and the majority of society condemned them for challenging the ban.

 

But this time, I do believe Saudi is changing. The current leader of the power game is the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, best known by his initials, MBS.  In the spring of 2017, I had the chance to meet with members of his signature 2030 Vision team, which is in charge of the kingdom’s modernization. I was very skeptical, but after a few hours of heated discussions and many more hours studying and reading, I became a supporter and a believer that this young man can finally bring change. When he was named the Crown Prince, I tweeted: “Now my hopes for better Saudi are bigger than the sky.”  MBS has reigned in the religious police who choked us, literally and figuratively, and has lifted a long list of restrictions on music and art, cinemas and on women working and attending public sporting events. Even the practice of closing shops five times a day for prayer is on its way out. It’s also the first time that someone in a major leadership position is younger than me and is part of the age group that makes up the majority of Saudi Arabia’s population.

 

But these changes may not be permanent. The Saudi Arabian political system is very complicated. To most of the outside world, it might seem as if being king in an absolute monarchy gives the ruler the absolute power to make any decision and execute it. In fact, the Saudi political system is riddled with many small powerful groups, each with conflicting interests. Nothing is absolute.

 

I do believe that allowing women to drive will be a permanent change.  Few things have brought more shame to Saudi Arabia than this draconian ban. And there is more: Saudi Arabia cannot succeed economically if women who are highly educated are kept in the backseat. My hope is that economic reforms will be combined with political reforms, leading to a constitutional monarchy where people have representatives and, one day, full freedom of expression.

 

 

Closing

 

Once, I was asked, “What Can Western Women Do to Help Women Like me?”.

 

My answer was simple. If the question is posed out of a “feeling of thankfulness for being a Western woman” or “OMG, those poor oppressed women”, then my answer is, “Thank you! Nothing. You’ve got a way to go yourselves”. But if the question comes out of genuine interest in our struggle as your sisters of the world, then yes, you can help by never taking your rights for granted, by practicing them and using your voice to speak up for the voiceless, helpless and most vulnerable in your societies. Just look around: you’ll find women who need your help 100 times more than those who are overseas. It was Martin Luther King Junior who said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. In the same vein, I want to encourage you to remember that to fight for women’s rights anywhere is to contribute to the fight for women’s rights everywhere.

 

Thank you, everyone!

 

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