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.
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.
“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.”
La Saoudienne Manal Al Sharif avait fait le buzz en pleines révolutions arabes, au mois de mai 2011. On la voyait conduire sa voiture dans les rues de la ville maritime de Al Khobar, activité rigoureusement interdite aux femme. La vidéo avait été postée sur tous les réseaux sociaux du monde. Ce geste avait initié un mouvement de protestation des Saoudiennes, bien au delà du permis de conduire. De passage à Paris, Manal Al Sharif confie ses ambitions et ses combats futurs. Rencontre
15.10.2012 – Durée : 3’00
Reportage de Sophie Golstein, Valerian Morzadec, montage Clément Taillefer
By Rita Henley Jensen
WeNews Editor in cheif
Manal al-Sharif and her son Credit: Rita Henley Jensen
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (WOMENSENEWS) — With her life torn apart by the events of the past year, it’s not clear whether Manal al-Sharif will be able to keep leading the push by Saudi women to drive.
Al-Sharif posted Tuesday an open petition to King Abdullah to end the ban on women driving. “It is our hope that you take into consideration our campaign I Will Drive My Own Car to encourage women who have obtained driving licenses from neighboring countries to forgo their male drivers and start driving themselves when they need to.”
The soft plea is a far cry from the buoyant protests last year on June 17, when more than 100 Saudi women and their male supporters drove cars publicly.
To continue her leadership on behalf of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif risks being jailed again and further death threats, she made clear during a recent interview here.
Last week, al-Sharif was unable to join four other Arab women in receiving a prestigious Vital Voices Leadership Award in Washington, D.C. Vital Voices was founded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1997, when Clinton was the first lady.
“The main reason for not being in #vvlead was for my family safety after receiving death threats from insane people,” al-Sharif wrote in a Tweet using the event’s hash tag.
A year after she defied this nation’s religious prohibition against women driving, al-Sharif is jobless, facing intense death threats and worried about going broke.
Yet she is far from broken.
“I always tell my mother,” she recently wrote in her blog, “they might handcuff me and send me behind jail bars, but I will never accept them putting cuffs on my mind. They can break my bones mom, but they can never break my soul.”
Al-Sharif and her right-to-drive allies have broadened their agenda in the past year and raised the stakes. Now these activists see their goal as full citizenship for Saudi women and ending the system of male guardianship over their every daily movement and decision.
The nation’s powerful Shura Council, a religious body, has publicized a study by a local university professor finding that allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse. The claims were reported widely by Saudi and international news media.
Unbowed, al-Sharif filed a suit in November against the General Directorate of Traffic Police for not issuing her a driver’s license. A second female driver also sued four months later and the cases were referred to an unnamed special committee in the Ministry of Interior.
Both suits were announced in February and the movement’s name was changed to My Right to Dignity.
Al-Sharif became the center of international attention in May 2011 when she posted a video on YouTube of her driving a car in Saudi Arabia. The following month, she was a key organizer of a June 17 protest when more than 100 women and male supporters drove cars publicly. In January 2012 she was a featured speaker at a Cairo conference for Arabic women who had used social media tools to foment social uprisings.
This May, al-Sharif accepted the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. Her 17-minute speech recounting the history of Saudi Arabia’s repression of women was posted on YouTube. The speech included the details of her being arrested the previous May for driving. She also recounted growing up during Saudi’s transition to control by Islamic extremists.
“I was taught that as a woman I am only Awra (sinful to expose),” she said. “My face was Awra, my voice was Awra, even my name was Awra. I started covering fully top to toe in black when I was 10 years old . . .We were faceless, voiceless and nameless; we were the invisible women,” she said in her speech.
Portrayed as a Traitor
Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum’s YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying her as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam, Pedro Pizano of the Human Rights Foundation wrote on the Huffington Post June 6. Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring al-Sharif a “hypocrite,” Pizano wrote.
Al-Sharif says she is now the target of a new onslaught of thousands of insults; online and in print news media. Some messages threaten sexual assault and death.
She also sustained enormous financial punishment for going to Oslo.
Until April, al-Sharif was one of two women working in Saudi’s Aramco’s information protection management division, a crucial high-tech job in the world’s largest oil company, which is owned by the Saudi government and produces 90 percent of the nation’s revenue.
During the months between the driving protests and her speech, Aramco denied three requests for time off from her job to speak at international conferences. In April she asked again, this time for four days off to go to Oslo. Her immediate supervisors approved, but not the higher ups.
“Whether you like it or not, your name is associated with us and we don’t want your name to be associated with us,” the executive director of her division explained, al-Sharif said.
If she were fired, she knew she would lose severance pay and an interest-free home loan for employees with five years or more of service. With those two things on the line, al-Sharif resigned.
While she was in Oslo she learned that Aramco had withdrawn approval for the home loan. So now she’s lost her job and her home loan. She’s also lost the one-bedroom Aramco-owned apartment in the spare-no-expense compound where she had been living with her 6-year-old son.
She got her home-loan deposit back and received her severance pay as well. But with no job or housing in sight, her future is uncertain.
More Liberal Town
Dhahran is a vast company town that stretches over a manicured desert for miles and hosts 11,000 Aramco employees and their families. The rules of life are generally more liberal here than in the rest of the country. With winding streets, brick homes and manicured shrubbery, Dhaharn is reminiscent of the 1970s U.S. suburb. Like a suburb, it includes an elementary school, a golf course, shopping, riding stables, a swimming pool, and even what would be forbidden elsewhere: a movie theater. Women can drive inside the town limits.
Which is how it all began for al-Sharif. In April of last year, at about 9 p.m., she was heading home from a doctor’s appointment in a nearby town al-Khobar. She used her cell phone to call taxis but none were available. She called her brother, but his cell phone was turned off. She began to walk.
Al-Sharif’s voice still rises in anger and fear as she describes what took place. Slender and of average height, she was harassed by male drivers. One in particular followed her, and even turned into parking areas to wait for her to catch up. She was terrified she was about to be kidnapped. After a half hour, she found a taxi and hurried home.
After she recounted the event to her coworkers the next day, one informed her that there was no law in Saudi Arabia saying women could not drive.
“I said to myself, I have a car and a driver’s license. Why can’t I drive outside of Aramco?” she said.
Shortly after, she received a Facebook message from a Saudi woman in the area tossing out the idea of organizing a protest of the driving ban.
A movement was born at what turned out to be a high personal price.
After driving on her own a couple of times and winning widespread YouTube and news media celebrity, al-Sharif got behind the wheel with her brother, his wife and her son in the car. She was stopped by traffic police, held for six hours and released. A few hours later, at 2 a.m., she was arrested at home by the religious police, interrogated for almost six hours before she was sent to jail for nine days.
“Calls to send me to a trial were roaring. There were even calls to flog me in a public place to make me an example to other women. I was called all names in the book for that simple act: whore, outcast, licentious, immoral, rebellious, disobedient, Iran agenda, Westernized, traitor, double agent, etc.,” al-Sharif said.
Her brother and his wife, harassed for their connection to her, left Saudi Arabia.
Her relationships at work quickly soured. She went from a rising star in the technical information security field to a data entry clerk.
More than 100 women and their male supporters drove on June 17. One was stopped and issued a ticket for driving without a license and released. Two women were later prosecuted; one was sentenced to 10 lashes. She too has fled. The outcome for the other is not known.
Al-Sharif was invited by Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek-Daily Beast, to appear in March at a splashy annual New York conference, the Women in the World Summit. Her request for time off to accept the honor was one of the three denied. In April, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2012.
“Saudi women will get their rights when they want, they just don’t realize it yet,” al-Sharif wrote in a June e-mail, amid the barrage of threats that dissuaded her from going to Washington, D.C., to receive her Vital Voices Leadership Award.
“The movement is the first drop that starts the rain,” she said, “but without more aware women who believe and are willing to pay the price, and without civil society organization to embrace this movement, the struggle will stay for long.”
Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews. She was part of an International Reporting Project delegation of U.S. editors visiting Saudi Arabia.
She is the Saudi woman who became a symbol of female emancipation when she was filmed behind the wheel of a car. In a rare interview, she tells Guy Adams of the persecution she has endured in her fight for equality – and why she will not be silenced
She was the plucky young woman who, in splendid defiance of one of the world’s most repressive societies, steered a car through the streets of the city of Khobar, railing as she went against the misogyny of laws that make it illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive.
Manal al-Sharif was arrested for her pains and spent nine days in jail on suspicion of a crime called “incitement to public disorder”. She emerged, almost a year ago, to worldwide fame: an eight-minute film of her protest drive, shot on a friend’s smartphone, spread across YouTube, in various iterations, at a rate of a million hits per day.
Since then, Ms Sharif has used her notoriety as the “Saudi Girl Driving” to pursue radical change. She has led mass “protest drives”, filed lawsuits against her nation’s chauvinistic traffic laws, and recently started a feminist pressure group, My Right to Dignity, which aims to undermine the conservative excesses of an Islamic state which treats women as second-class citizens.
Her struggle hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. For all the plaudits (she recently joined Barack Obama and Pippa Middleton in Time magazine’s list of the world’s “100 most influential” people), she is subjected to daily death threats, and fears for the safety of her parents and her six-year-old son. “I measure the impact I make by how harsh the attacks are,” she says. “The harsher the attacks, the better I am doing.”
[Following sentence updated:] A few months ago, Saudi “sources” convinced several media outlets that Ms Sharif had been involved in a fatal car crash that was the subject of a report carried by the news agency AFP. “The whole idea was to say ‘see, God is punishing her; women really shouldn’t drive!’,” she recalls. She soon rang her family, before informing her 90,000 Twitter followers that rumours of her demise were “rubbish”.
This month, Ms Sharif has suffered the ultimate sanction for any single mother: the loss of her livelihood. The oil company Aramco, her employer for more than a decade, told her she faced the sack for daring to stick her head above the political parapet.
We meet in Norway, where she has just given a barnstorming speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of global human rights activists. A film of her extraordinarily moving presentation, which received an ovation, hit YouTube last week. A quarter of a million people have already watched.
“After I was invited to speak here in Oslo, I asked for four days off and my company refused,” she says of her sacking. “My boss called me and said, ‘If you are going to talk at another conference, you could lose your job. You are not allowed to go. We don’t want our name to be associated with you’.”
Ms Sharif went anyway and, at 33, now finds herself jobless and homeless (her flat was owned by Aramco). A lesser woman might feel ground down by that pressure but, looking impressive and poised in her very un-Saudi business attire, she seems energised instead. In a hotel lobby, she angrily rattles through the daily indignities of life in a country which, despite her university education and high-flying CV, forces her to live according to a set of ultra-conservative Islamic protocols which hark back to the Dark Ages.
The lot of Saudi women is shaped by Wahhabism, the most unbending form of the Muslim faith, she explains. The Koran is effectively her nation’s constitution and gender apartheid is a cultural obsession. Shops, restaurants, schools and workplaces are sexually segregated, while strict rules, enforced by shadowy religious police, govern every aspect of a woman’s existence.
“I’m a single mother and I’m 33 but it’s hard to even rent my own apartment without getting my father to sign a piece of paper saying he gives permission,” she says. “I went to renew my passport the other day and they told me to come back with my male guardian. That is life, for a Saudi woman; wherever we go, whatever we achieve, we are the property of a man.”
A Saudi woman who is beaten or raped by her husband and goes to the police must bring that husband along to formally “identify” her, she adds. Saudi women are forbidden from playing competitive sports and are not due to get the vote until 2015.
The irony of Ms Sharif’s life is that she has a deeply conservative background. Born in 1979, she grew up in Mecca, the holiest of holy cities. Her working-class home had separate entrances for men and women. As a child, she remembers burning her brother’s pop cassettes in the oven after mullahs told her music came from “Satan’s flute”.
Later, at university in Jeddah, her class of 60 women was taught computer science in a segregated campus, by professors lecturing from remote locations via closed-circuit television. In keeping with convention, she wore a vast black niqab and long gloves.
Her life changed, almost overnight, on 9/11, orchestrated by her countryman Osama bin Laden. “The extremists told us it was God’s punishment to America,” she recalls. But on the news that evening, she was sickened by footage of office workers jumping from the twin towers. “I said to myself, ‘something is wrong. There is no religion on earth that can accept such mercilessness, such cruelty.'”
Ms Sharif began questioning literalist aspects of her faith. “I realised it is impossible to live with the rules they give Saudi women,” she says. “Just impossible. You trying to do everything by the book but you can never stay pure.”
After leaving university, she gained further independence by landing a job in information security for Aramco, which had been US-owned. It was a lucky break: of Saudi Arabia’s five million women graduates, only about 500,000 are employed. At 24, she got engaged to a co-worker and at 25 they married.
It didn’t work out. While Ms Sharif is reluctant to dwell on the details, she says that the kingdom’s staggeringly high divorce rate of 60 per cent is rooted in tensions surrounding gender inequality. “My father’s generation of Saudi men are more liberal than the men of my generation,” she says. “But with women it’s the opposite. Women are much less conservative than the men now, and that leads to clashes.”
After her divorce, she spent a year in family courts. She won custody of her son but has no legal recourse to maintenance. The experience further convinced her that Saudi women must stand up for their rights. “I cannot make him pay, and this is one of the things we are fighting for,” she says. “To have family courts and family laws which protect women and children from abuse.”
In 2009, Ms Sharif’s employer sent her temporarily to its US office, in Boston. “I remember just thinking it was so incredibly normal,” she says. “There were no complications. I could just live a normal life. I could go and look at apartments and sign a contract myself. I went to the bank, and opened an account.”
Most importantly, she drove a car. “I thought, ‘This is how life should be’.”
Not long after returning home, Ms Sharif took her now-famous car journey. It was the start of a long campaign that she says will end only when women in Saudi Arabia become the equals of men. It is a tall order, but she is adamant that it can be done.
“You know what?” she tells people who ask the secret of her success. “They just messed with the wrong woman.”
Fight for rights: Worst places to be female
Rated the worst of 135 countries for women by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2011. With limited access to education, Yemeni women take only two per cent of skilled jobs. Around 14 per cent of girls are married before the age of 15, and some are forced to marry as young as eight, Human Rights Watch says.
Three times as many men are enrolled at university as women in the central African country, one of the poorest nations in the world. From 2005-11, Chad closed only 52 per cent of its gender pay gap – the lowest out of all countries surveyed.
Women have greater than average political empowerment in Pakistan (which came one place above the UK in the ratings), but health, education and economic participation are areas of inequality. The nation’s labour force is made up of four times as many men as women.
Women are treated as second-class citizens in Mali, where more than half are married by the time they are 18 and 69 per cent of women aged 15 to 24 are illiterate, according to Unicef. Under the new Family Code law adopted this year, which had been heralded as a step forward, women’s rights have been set back to the original 1962 Bill, which rules a woman must obey her husband.
Aired April 26, 2012 – 15:00:00 ET
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everybody and welcome to the program. I’m Christiane Amanpour.
The Arab Spring turned the Middle East upside down. Ruthless dictators were overthrown and popular movements arose like mythical warriors, sprung from dragon’s teeth. The struggle continues in Syria today, and it’s bloody. But Saudi Arabia, a monarchy rich with oil, was seemingly untouched. There have been Shiite protests as recently as January, but they’ve been quickly and firmly put down.
Perhaps, though, there’s a different movement springing up there. My brief tonight, paving the way for change in Saudi Arabia. And no one is doing more to bring about that change that one quietly courageous woman.
Women in Saudi Arabia are still treated as property, chaperoned like children whenever they go out in public, deprived of basic rights, such as a driver’s license. Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive themselves to work or to the market or even to the doctor’s office if they or a family member are in need of care. If they do, they can be arrested.
A YouTube video challenged all that, shot on a cell phone, it appeared last May and showed a Saudi woman driving a car through the streets of the capital, Riyadh. It quickly went viral and was followed by a Facebook page calling on Saudi women to get behind the wheel on a day of protest.
Their numbers weren’t great, but the battle was joined and the world was watching. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a supporter, and the quietly courageous woman I mentioned at the beginning, standing beside her, Manal al-Sharif, is my guest tonight. I drove with her here in New York, and discovered that she wants to work with the Saudi king on this, not against him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: How scary is it driving here in New York compared with defying law and order in Saudi Arabia and driving there?
MANAL AL-SHARIF, SAUDI ACTIVIST: It’s funny, it’s normal. Even the day I drove in Khobar City, it felt normal. It felt — this is normal. And it meant I wasn’t afraid. People asked me, were you afraid that day and I said no, it felt normal.
AMANPOUR: And yet —
AL-SHARIF: It’s here. The fear is here, where we’re crippled in our own imagination. There’s nothing scary about it.
AMANPOUR: What happened to you when you were caught driving?
AL-SHARIF: They did drive us to the police station, asked us to sign a pledge. We were there like for six hours interrogating me and my brother. And then they leave and then they called us back again, interrogation again. And then they sent me to jail with no charges.
AMANPOUR: They sent you to jail for driving?
AL-SHARIF: For driving.
AMANPOUR: Even no charges?
AL-SHARIF: One of the charges was embarrassing the country image because I posted that video on YouTube.
AMANPOUR: Tell me about the YouTube video. How did that idea come? Why did you post it? What were you saying?
AL-SHARIF: I was in Maine (ph) and our spring was going all over, and the (inaudible) social media. Said that was a good idea. Why not use the social media to get our voice heard? So there was like a new idea. There is no law —
AMANPOUR: There is no law banning you from driving?
AL-SHARIF: Unfortunately, no.
AMANPOUR: So is that traditional?
AMANPOUR: What message are you trying to send by driving?
AL-SHARIF: It’s a symbolic act of the woman right, we want to be full citizens. I’m educated. I have a job. And I should be able to — I should be trusted to drive my own car. It’s really bizarre that women like 57 percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, so we’re higher educated.
Women have higher education. Women are more than men for higher education. So those women are very well educated. But they’re not trusted for a simple act like this. And that goes on in all aspects of our life.
AMANPOUR: Let’s get out of the car for a moment and we’ll continue talking outside.
Let me ask you about something in the news, and that is the Olympic Games are coming up in London. And there’s been a lot of focus as to whether countries like Saudi Arabia will send female athletes.
AMANPOUR: Will they?
AL-SHARIF: Well, when they say that, I would love it. We don’t have athletes in the country. There’s no support for them. There’s no infrastructure. So how could you send athletes? From where are going to get those athletes? So we knew that because of the —
AMANPOUR: So you have no sportswomen in Saudi Arabia?
AL-SHARIF: No. And Olympic — the Olympic Committee (ph), they said Saudi Arabia doesn’t send women in their team this year? They would not be part in London Olympics. It was just a game. It was just a show to be able to be part of the Olympics. (Inaudible) —
AMANPOUR: So the men could compete?
AL-SHARIF: So the men. It’s very interesting. So we’ve always needed men to live. And now men need us women to be part of that.
AMANPOUR: Maybe that’s where your power is going to come from.
AL-SHARIF: It was — it’s — I don’t know. It’s really, I don’t know how things turn around, like what goes around, comes around.
Personally, I played basketball for five years in college in (inaudible). I went to (inaudible) College. And we have a gymnasium for girls. But it’s very — like we sneak around. It’s very undercover. It’s like you’re doing a — you’re committing a crime. We won all these trophies, all these medals, but no one knows about it, even my own family.
So I have to take my clothes, my —
AMANPOUR: — secret society.
AMANPOUR: Manal, I’m stunned by how things haven’t changed. Twenty years ago, I broke the first story of women trying to drive in Saudi Arabia. What happened to those women? It was terrible.
AL-SHARIF: In few words, they told them why (ph). They turned them into outcasts of the society.
AMANPOUR: Some of those women, the original drivers, have joined your cause.
AMANPOUR: Why? What did they tell you?
AL-SHARIF: We want you to lead this because we lost our life with the last 30 years and nothing changed. And they were very happy that we started this again.
AMANPOUR: So they said they lost their lives.
AL-SHARIF: Their life had been taken away from them. And it’s very sad that for a simple act like that, it turned to be against the whole society.
AMANPOUR: What are your tactics? If you don’t want to confront society head-on?
AL-SHARIF: We — from this day we started, we were very considerate to the conservative society that we are talking to. So we don’t want to create resistance and by shouting, by being aggressive. That would create this wall between us and the society. And they will not listen. We are not against (inaudible). (Inaudible) very pleased that we are Saudi (ph) women. We love our country and we’re not against the — we are not challenging authorities. We’re just challenging laws that are unjust to us.
AMANPOUR: Explain to me how men essentially direct your lives.
AL-SHARIF: So from the day we are born until the day we die, we have the men guardianship system. But male guardianship, for example, is enforced by law. And that’s the difficult and the long-run challenge for us and battle for us.
AMANPOUR: How does that system work?
AL-SHARIF: So no matter how old I am, I’m still minor (ph) until the day I die.
AMANPOUR: A minor?
AL-SHARIF: A minor. So I’m treated as a minor in every single aspect of my life. I need to get a male permission to study, to work, to get my papers, to leave the country.
AMANPOUR: And who — which males’ permission?
AL-SHARIF: It’s — that’s the funny thing. So if I’m not married, it’s my father. If I’m married, it’s moved, the male guardianship. The guardianship moves from my father to my husband.
AMANPOUR: And what if you have no father and no husband?
AL-SHARIF: It moves to my kids (ph) for example.
AMANPOUR: Your kid is your guardian?
AL-SHARIF: Yes. So it’s — can you imagine, you give birth to your own guardian.
It’s sad. So this is the — this is the system that we are — it’s put there and it’s for — enforced by law and this is the long and the most challenging battle that we are facing. I’m well educated. I’m independent. I have a job. Then I have to be treated as an adult. But if you do, let’s say, if you commit a crime or if you make a mistake, you are charged and you are treated like adult, not like a minor.
AL-SHARIF: Yes. So they punish you. They don’t punish your guardian.
AMANPOUR: We’ve been watching Saudi Arabia for decades now, wondering when things are going to change. King Abdullah says that he is for liberalizing some women’s rights. Is it ever going to happen? Do you believe your highest authority?
AL-SHARIF: King Abdullah is a true reformer. And he do — he does believe in women’s rights. And we can — we can see this. The problem is not only because — he can’t just enforce change from top or from bottom. It has to go the whole society should believe in that.
I have in my profile in Facebook, it says because my mother couldn’t change my present, I decided to change my daughter’s future. I didn’t have a daughter. What I meant, the previous generation couldn’t change our present. Our present.
So we decided to change the next generation future. And that’s happened now. So if it doesn’t happen in our age, at least this movement will put — will cast the foundation for those generations to come.
AMANPOUR: So what are you lobbying for? What are you struggling for now?
AL-SHARIF: Full citizenship.
AMANPOUR: Full citizenship?
AL-SHARIF: Just be treated as adults, not as a minor. I can take decisions in my life without needing to ask someone’s permission. Women are crippled with fear, and it’s here. It’s — this invisible monster that we created, it’s only exists here.
It’s like a wall that we built. And we never thought of even scratching the walls to find it a cardboard, not a real wall.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
By Jess HillFebruary 7, 2012
Manal al-Sharif talks about the day she drove a car in Saudi Arabia (the last place in the world women are forbidden from getting behind the wheel) and the ugly, and inspiring, aftermath.
On the top floor of Cairo’s Nile Fairmont hotel, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif was being mobbed. Female activists from around the Arab world clamoured to shake her hand, swap business cards, and ask her advice. Dressed in an elegant pants suit, she greeted each one as if they were old friends, then talked to them with an intensity that was hard to interrupt.
This was an unusual event: a summit for female cyber-activists, featuring social media luminaries from the Middle East and the West.
In this community, Manal al-Sharif is a hero, for one major reason: In Saudi Arabia last May, she dared to drive. Then she posted a video of the event on YouTube, complete with live commentary on the appalling status of women in the Kingdom. Before the video, in Arabic only, was removed four days later, it had been viewed more than 700,000 times. It has been posted again with English subtitles and continues to draw tens of thousands of viewers.
As millions of people around the world were soon to discover, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.
Now al-Sharif is known as ‘the woman who filmed herself driving.’ But that YouTube video is only the beginning of her story.
When I first contacted al-Sharif last June, she was under great pressure from the Saudi authorities to stay quiet. I made several requests for interviews through the year, each one politely declined. Finally, in Cairo, she agreed to one of the very few interviews she has given, cautious as she is about raising the ire of the Saudi authorities. “After I speak to you, I’ll have to lay low for another few months,” she says, as we looked for a quiet place to talk.
Sitting in a room overlooking the Nile, al-Sharif said she drove to make a simple point. “I wanted to prove there are no wolves — they call them ‘menwolves’ — in the street that were going to eat me, or rape me,” she says. “I drove in al-Khobar, one of the biggest cities in the eastern province. I stopped, I bought groceries, came back, and no-one talked to us,” she recalled.
Al-Sharif’s protest was a rare act of public defiance in a country that is generally ignored by Western journalists. The international media leapt on it, because it fit the narrative perfectly: another potential canary in the coalmine of the Arab Awakening.
Bizarrely, as al-Sharif’s story raced around the world, the Saudi authorities were silent. “That really creeped us out,” she says. Al-Sharif was working on a nationwide campaign called Women2Drive, which called on Saudi women with foreign driver’s licences to drive in the Kingdom on June 17, 2011. Despite promoting the campaign on Twitter and Facebook, she hadn’t received one word of caution from the government. “We were so anxious about it,” she says. “We were like, are they going to hurt us, the women who are going to drive on June 17?”
A few days later, on May 21, al-Sharif was about to go to lunch with her family when she had an idea. “I said to my brother, ‘Can we try something? Can we drive, and go past a police car to see their reaction?’”
The traffic police did pull the pair over, but there was little they could do; there’s no actual law that prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia. “They usually take you down the station with your father or brother and get you to sign a pledge never to drive again,” says al-Sharif. But as the traffic patrolmen debated what to do, a citizen standing nearby made a phone call to the muttawa, Saudi Arabia’s religious police.
There are two police forces in the Kingdom: one for the illegal, and one for the immoral. Armed with thin wooden canes, the muttaw a patrol the streets for violations of the Kingdom’s strict moral laws, or fatwas. They work under a broad, ambiguous mandate: from enforcing strict segregation of men and women (in public and in the workplace) and ensuring women are covered head-to-toe by the blackabaya, to punishing people for celebrating Valentine’s Day. One fatwa they are particularly fervent about enforcing is the one that prohibits women from driving.
When the muttawa pulled up alongside al-Sharif and her brother that afternoon, the situation escalated. “They were shouting at us, calling us names. They wanted to put me in their car,” al-Sharif recalled. “And that is a big shame, to be in the religious police car. That means you did something moral.”
The muttawa accused her of violating a cultural norm — arouf. When they asked her to sign a pledge not to drive again, Al-Sharif was indignant. “I said, ‘There is no law. What’s the point? Tell me: What did I violate?’”
She refused to cooperate, and after five hours of interrogation, they released her. Barely two hours later, at 2am the next morning, the secret police came to al-Sharif’s house and dragged her out. She was taken to a civilian jail and locked up without charge. “I said please, can I talk to my (six-year-old) son, he’s in the house, I want to tell him that Mommy is…” she recalls, trailing off. “We always hear these stories, where they just take you and put you in jail, and nobody ever hears about you again. That’s it, I thought. This is my end.”
Nine days of intense scrutiny from the foreign media and pressure from human-rights groups won al-Sharif’s release. By that time, her notoriety had skyrocketed inside the Kingdom. Headlines in the national press accused her of “inciting public opinion” and, invoking a classic Arab charge, of having an external sponsor and a “hidden agenda.”
The religious zealots made it clear to al-Sharif that to continue her campaign would be to risk her life. Anonymous phone calls threatened her with murder and rape, and her brother was harassed so badly he had to leave the country. He now lives in Kuwait.
“They usually take you down the station with your father or brother and get you to sign a pledge never to drive again.”
Even al-Sharif’s six-year-old son has been victimised. “They beat up my son [at school], and say, ‘You should be in jail with your mother.’” Last year, the religious teacher at her son’s school told the class, “Manal al-Sharif is a crazy woman, and if it were up to me, I’d never release her from jail.” Al-Sharif shook her head and went quiet for a moment. “He’s only six. He won’t understand all these complications.”
But it’s not just fanatics in Saudi Arabia who’ve been activated by al-Sharif’s campaign. “Women have told me, ‘Manal, what you did woke us up.’ Now they’re realising: We’ve been brainwashed all these years. Men’s rights, men’s rights — your father’s rights, your husband’s rights. But we never heard about a woman’s rights.”
Saudi Arabia has been aggressively resisting modernity since its nationwide clampdown in 1979. That year, as the world’s eyes were glued to the hostage crisis in Iran, a religious fanatic named Juhayman (Arabic for “angry face”), enraged by the westernised lifestyles of the Saudi royal family, laid siege to Islam’s holiest site, the Great Mosque at Mecca.
By the time he and his followers were captured two weeks later, 200 people were dead. The attack sent shockwaves through Saudi society, and a message to its monarch, King Khaled: To protect Saudi Arabia from its religious extremists, he would have to appease them. Liberal reforms were reversed, and the king gave millions of dollars to the ulama — the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia — to implement their rigid version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, across the kingdom.
Women’s rights were abolished entirely, and since then, their status has been equivalent to that of a legal minor: every decision they make must be approved by a male relative. Al-Sharif was adamant, however, that something in the kingdom is changing. “Last year, I heard this a lot: ‘Women will change this country, not men.’ Because women are outspoken, and they’re united,” she says.
That has a lot to do with the much-feared foreign influence. “There are around 257,000 students and their families living abroad,” says al-Sharif, who’s also lived abroad, having spent a year in Boston. “Women started going in 2005. This is the bravest thing King Abdullah did. Because those women are living a normal life abroad, and when they come back, they will not accept what we’re accepting.”
King Abdullah has been earning his reputation as a reformer, albeit in very small, slow steps. In September last year, the king granted women the right to vote and run for municipal parliament, and last month, Saudi women were granted the right to work in lingerie shops (previously, those jobs were held exclusively by men).
Even the scandalous Women2Drive campaign is gaining traction. The Shura, a consultative council that can propose new laws to the king, has agreed to meet a committee from the group. “They’ve rejected it for the past 21 years, so this is huge,” al-Sharif exclaimed.
“[You] hear these stories, where they just take you and put you in jail… That’s it, I thought. This is my end.”
Just as this tide is shifting, however, Saudi women may be about to face a new adversary. King Abdullah is 87 and visibly frail. It’s expected that his 78-year-old half-brother and heir, the religious conservative Crown Prince Nayef, will soon inherit the throne.
It was Prince Nayef who announced, after 47 women defied the country’s driving ban in 1990, that women were officially forbidden from driving. In his current role as Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef has led a fierce campaign against dissidents and human rights activists. A Saudi activist, speaking to me anonymously, said activists were really worried about his succession: “He is an extremist.”
But as long as the West continues to back Saudi hegemony in the region as a bulwark against Iran, there will be no reason to change. When King Abdullah announced Prince Nayef as his heir in October last year, President Obama said, “We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism and supporting regional peace and security,” and reaffirmed America’s “deep and longstanding” relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In December last year, the Obama administration announced an arms deal with Saudi Arabia valued at nearly $30 billion.
Al-Sharif, who works at ARAMCO, the biggest oil company in Saudi Arabia, conceded that while there’s oil in the Kingdom, change will come only by degrees. “It’s not going to happen in my time, it will be for the generations that come after. And they will come, and remember us. The generation before me, those women had the chance, but they didn’t speak up, they didn’t do anything about it. And we’re paying the price.”
No matter the personal price, al-Sharif is determined to continue. She’s the first woman to have ever been issued a driving ticket in Saudi Arabia, a fact she says she “couldn’t be more proud of.” This month, she will launch a new phase of the campaign, calling for women to have the right apply for a driver’s licence and learn how to drive at driving schools. “People see me going — I’m very strong, and they’re like, ‘She has someone supporting her.’ I have no-one, except my son and my family.” Even the women’s rights supporters in Saudi are split on her campaign. “I’ve been told a lot, ‘You’re superficial, you’re so silly — there are divorced women, widows, impoverished people, why don’t you fight for them?’
“Because I started something, and I’m going to finish it — whether they like it or not,” she says adamantly. “I’m not going to stop until the first driver’s licence has been issued to a woman in Arabia. Twenty-one years of agony in this country should end.”