Manal Al Sherif

I ran into this by accident.. My eyes filled with tears.. And women are still minors in my country.. and women are still not able to drive..

Saudiwoman's Weblog

A couple of weeks back an event page was created on Facebook calling on women to drive their cars on June 17th. The page was started by a group of individuals, one of whom was Manal Al Sharif. As news of the page got around, it caused a lot of controversy and more Facebook pages. The pages that were created are reflective of the different types of reaction such a call has caused in Saudis. One of the pages is a campaign for Saudi to whip women who drive on June 17th and another is simply an anti women driving campaign page. The former has over 1900 supporters and the latter has 2800 supporters. On top of that we have a sheikh Dr. Al Habdan who has made it his personal mission to make sure no woman drives in Saudi. He has called on the PVPV to…

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Manal Al-Sharif: a driving force for change

Manal Al-Sharif: a driving force for change

Manal Al-Sharif is a 33-year-old Saudi activist who inspired a campaign for women’s rights when she defied the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and was imprisoned for nine days for driving her car.  A YouTube video featuring Al-Sharif driving brought her international exposure where she was selected as one of 2012’s Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

Al-Sharif was a participant in a panel discussion on social movements and women at the United Nations Social Forum of the Human Rights Council, which was held recently in Geneva. She discussed the impact of social media on Saudi citizens’ everyday life and how it has become a powerful tool in the women’s emancipation movement.

“Social media has had a pivotal role in my work for women’s rights,” she says. “Without YouTube, Twitter and Facebook we would not have made it this far. In Saudi Arabia, there are no pulpits. There are no places to air your views. So, it’s amazing to have these tools.”

Al-Sharif explains how an increasingly large part of the Saudi population is thirsty for news and eager to express their opinions on social media. According to the Dubai School of Government Arab Social Media Report, Saudis are the largest active users of Twitter in the Arab world with 393,000 active Twitter users.

News reaches Saudi Twitter followers before it reaches the national press, says Al-Sharif, so it has become a vital tool to spark a movement.  “So we said, let’s use it. Not only to voice our opinions, but to create change, to start campaigns, and to send out petitions. The local press would never publish our demands,” she says. “I was sent to jail because I used social media. You need to look at the reaction to see how powerful the impact is.”

In 2011, Al-Sharif’s started a women’s right to drive campaign called Women2Drive in an effort to pressure the government into granting women the right to drive. She and her collaborators soon realized how powerful their voices and messages were as the international media picked up their story.

Al-Sharif would like to see Saudi women realizing freedoms in all aspects of daily life. “A Saudi woman can’t make any decision in her life—study, work, marry, obtain a passport, and travel—without written permission from her legal male guardian, effectively treating her as a minor all her life,” she says. “For the religious establishment, this is like their last castle, so if they lose this castle, they lose their grip on women, on controlling women. For us, the status quo of women in Saudi Arabia—being controlled, being minors, being second-class citizens—is the key to change,” she claims.

“The most important thing for us is that women are aware of their rights and that women themselves take action,” says Al-Sharif. She compares the individual Saudi women who bravely take action against a society where women have no voice, to small drops of water who in the end form a huge sea. “Never underestimate the powerful act of the individual,” she says. “When you combine all these individual acts together, it creates massive power, unstoppable and unbreakable power.”

She is at a point of no return, she says, and the momentum cannot be wasted. “My hope is that we achieve full citizenship in Saudi Arabia—equality in education and job opportunities,” she says. “We should have a voice in political life and a voice in decision-making.”

11 January 2013

Translation of My Right to Dignity petition

Saudiwoman's Weblog


My Right to Dignity has published an open petition addressed to the King on the occasion of one year since the beginning of the June 17th women driving movement. The petition renews the request to lift the ban. You can sign it by going HERE. Below is a translation:

To his majesty, the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, may God save and bless him.

Peace and God’s mercy and blessing be upon you,

We address your majesty with thankfulness and gratitude for the utmost care that you have granted to Saudi women issues and the progressive steps that you have taken to involve women in the national development projects. These steps that you summarized in your historical speech on September 25th 2011 when you said, “We will not approve the marginalization of women.” This was followed by the two decrees concerning women membership on…

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Women Who Rock the World: Activists Gather for Vital Voices Awards

by Jun 7, 2012 3:27 PM EDT

Firebrands from far-flung corners of the planet converge in D.C. for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards. But one Saudi activist is forced to stay home amid death threats. By Abigail Pesta.

Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman started a revolution in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night. The Yemeni human-rights activist rallied a packed audience at the annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards to join her in a rousing chant to vanquish dictators.

Award winners and presenters at the event in Washington. (Sharon Farmer)

“One, two, three, four. Bashir, Assad out the door,” she said in reference to the leaders of Sudan and Syria. “Five, six, seven, eight. Stop the killing, stop the hate.”

The crowd of 2,000 at the Kennedy Center Opera House joined in—somewhat tentatively at first, then more forcefully as Karman kept chanting.

Organizers of the event, hosted by the nonprofit group Vital Voices, which trains women leaders around the world, said afterward at the dinner that they had no idea the rallying cry was on Karman’s agenda. It’s just what happens when you bring together some of the planet’s most powerful voices for peace and human rights.

Karman, who won the Nobel Prize this past fall for her fight for freedom of the press and human rights in Yemen, joined four outspoken activists from across the Middle East onstage: Libyan human-rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis, Yemeni journalist Shatha Al-Harazi, Tunisian blogger Amira Yahyaoui, and Egyptian women’s rights activist Marianne Ibrahim. All have put themselves in harm’s way through their work, with journalist Al-Harazi receiving death threats after suggesting to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh at a face-to-face meeting that he resign. The four women shared the Global Trailblazer Award.

A fifth recipient of the award, Manal Alsharif—who caused an uproar in her native Saudi Arabia last year by posting a YouTube video of herself driving a car, in a country where women are famously forbidden to drive—could not attend. Alsharif told organizers of the event that she felt it would be too dangerous for her to do so, as she had received death threats for her activism. Credited with igniting the women’s-right-to-drive movement in her country, Alsharif was profiled by Newsweek this past spring in its “150 Fearless Women” portfolio.

Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Abigail Pesta interviews Alyse Nelson.

In another poignant moment, Chelsea Clinton described the significance of the Fern Holland Award, named for a young Oklahoma woman who went to Iraq in 2003 with the Coalition Provisional Authority to support the transitional government. In 2004, Holland was shot dead at age 34, in a car in Karbala, along with American press officer Robert Zangas and Iraqi translator Salwa Ourmashi.

Clinton spoke with poise and also a sprinkling of humor, drawing a laugh when she said her mother wants to make the world a better place for the next generation of women—including the grandchildren she hopes to have, soon.

Clinton and Holland’s sister, Viola Holland-Christianson, presented the Fern Holland Award to a death-defying Pakistani filmmaker named Samar Minallah Khan. Through her documentary films, Khan tells the stories that the militants and tribal elders would rather keep silent—such as the stories of young girls given away as domestic slaves to settle family disputes.

Hillary Clinton couldn’t make the event, for the first time in 11 years, as she was on a State Department trip to Turkey, but greeted guests onscreen. She and Madeleine Albright had inspired the nonprofit Vital Voices in 2000, after launching a government initiative in 1997 called the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, aimed at advancing women’s economic and political roles.

Chelsea Clinton drew a laugh when she said her mother wants to make the world a better place for the next generation of women—including the grandchildren she hopes to have, soon.

The Human Rights Award, presented by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, went to Rosana Schaack, the founder of a group in Liberia that works to rehabilitate thousands of former girl soldiers. The group, called Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness, recently expanded to help survivors of rape and women displaced by the country’s long-running civil war, which ended in 2003.

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The Leadership in Public Life Award, presented by Tina Brown, editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, along with Luis Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, went to Ruth Zavaleta Salgado. One of the founders of Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, which protects and promotes democracy, Salgado works to get women into public office in the country’s notoriously macho-male realm of politics.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and NBC chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell presented the Economic Empowerment Award to Adimaimalaga Tafuna’i, a Samoan entrepreneur who brought products such as coconut oil from remote Samoan villages to the world through partnerships with companies like the Body Shop. She now runs a group called Women in Business Development, which encourages and supports women entrepreneurs. The soft-spoken Tafuna’i wiped away tears as she thanked Vital Voices for “coming to find us.”

Other speakers at the event included Alyse Nelson, president and chief executive of Vital Voices; Melanne Verveer, director of the State Department’s Office on Global Women’s Issues; Susan Ann Davis, chair of Vital Voices; Carol Lancaster, vice-chair of Vital Voices; Wolf Blitzer, CNN political anchor; Claire Shipman, contributor to Good Morning America; actress Jennifer Morrison; and Kay Krill, president and CEO of Ann Inc., the parent company of Ann Taylor and Loft.

Get Involved: Learn about women and girls around the globe at our Women in the World Foundation.

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Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked around the world, from New York to London to Hong Kong. Currently she is the editorial director of Women in the World at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She is a former editor-at-large of Marie Claire magazine, and a former news editor at The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. She also has worked as an articles editor at Glamour, where she launched Mariane Pearl’s popular column about women changing the world. Abby writes short stories for her website, Fine Words Butter No Parsnips. Follow her on Twitter at @AbigailPesta.

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Oslo Freedom Forum: The Davos For Do-Gooding Dissidents

May 11, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

High-profile summits aren’t just for glitzy politicians and jetsetters anymore. Activists, journalists, artists and dissidents meet in Oslo to share revolutionary ideas.

The Economist has described the Oslo Freedom Forum, now in its fourth year, as being on its way to becoming the Davos of human rights. But that’s not quite right. Davos is an annual European conference where the well-to-do meet to do good. The Oslo Freedom Forum, on the other hand, is a European conference of do-gooders conspiring to stir up trouble.

There is perhaps no better example than Manal al-Sharif, one of three winners this year of the forum’s Vaclav Havel prize for Creative Dissent. Last year al-Sharif, an information security specialist from Saudi Arabia, decided to go for a drive in her home town of Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where driving is illegal for women. She recorded herself and posted the video to the Internet. It became a YouTube sensation and also changed her life.

“My colleagues have called me a traitor to my managers at my job,” she told me in an interview. “I have received death threats, rape threats, anonymous people go to my family and tell my parents, ‘Your daughter is a traitor.’”

The Freedom Forum is the brainchild of a Venezuelan named Thor Halvorssen, a 36-year-old filmmaker whose preppy good looks make him appear more like a J-Crew model than a hardened activist. In an interview he said he was inspired to create a human-rights organization on August 15, 2004. That was the day his mother was shot by Venezuelan security forces while demonstrating in Caracas. She and others were urging former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was observing a referendum on the rule of Hugo Chavez, to consider more evidence of voter fraud.

“The existing human rights institutions—Amnesty and Human Rights Watch—were not addressing a deteriorating situation; they were hopelessly absent, so why not create a new group?” Halvorssen said.

That new group became the Human Rights Foundation, which in 2009 launched the first Oslo Freedom Forum.

Women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was one of three winners this year of the Oslo Freedom Forum’s Vaclav Havel prize for Creative Dissent. (Jemal Countess)

At first Halvorssen said he wanted the forum to be a place where the heroes of the Cold War era, men like Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel and Elie Weisel, could deliver a “final lecture.” Havel appeared at the conference before he died. Weisel gave the inaugural address to the group.

Halvorssen chose Oslo for the forum because it was neutral ground. “Norway is a country that has never invaded another,” he said. “Bringing international delegates here, what are their governments going to say, ‘You are taking orders from the Norwegian empire’?”

Norwegians have mixed feelings about the forum. On the first day of this year’s conference, the Marxist Newspaper, KlasseKampen (Class Struggle), ran a negative article on its front page, essentially saying it was empty pageantry. The Norwegian foreign ministry, however, donated around $80,000 to the conference this year.

“As I see it, this conference lifts the cases of individuals,” says Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s foreign minister. “This gives them a chance to testify on the world stage.”

The Freedom Forum has evolved since 2009. This year it featured a talk from Somaly Mam, a Cambodian former sex slave who is now a leading abolitionist crusading against the practice in her home country. Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian activist, presented videos of his wife’s punk rock group, “Pussy Riot,” and their impromptu protests in Red Square and near well-known Moscow landmarks. (Full disclosure: I participated in a panel discussion with Verzilov on the state of the Russian opposition in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.)

Not all of the presentations were hits with the audience. The actress Julia Ormond gave a rambling speech on human slavery and the global supply chain for manufacturing. She ended her speech by singing a “Amazing Grace” a cappella.

At a breakfast roundtable session sponsored by a California-based charity, Humanity United, a former British diplomat named Carne Ross proposed ending nearly all secrecy in Western diplomacy. I would share more details of that talk, but Ross asked that his remarks be off the record.

The real action, however, happens in the times between the formal talks and panels. This year a group of Arab writers and editors at the conference came together to discuss a new kind of platform to defend secularism. Amir Ahmad Nasr, a Sudanese blogger, described the project as a “hub to self organize.” The idea for a website and publication has been percolating with Nasser Wedaddy, a Mauritanian American, and Ahmed Benchemsi, a Moroccan publisher and editor who founded an iconic Arabic news magazine in his home country that eventually had to close after the country’s king led a boycott against it. The working title of the effort is “Free Arabs.”

Wedaddy told me Charter 77, the movement founded during the Cold War by Havel for anti-authoritarian dissidents, was one inspiration. “The Berlin wall fell in 1989, we are still waiting for our walls to fall,” he said.

The news that Havel is inspiring a new generation of Arab liberals pleases Halvorssen. “It exceeds our expectations,” he said.

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Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

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TIME: The World’s 100 Most Influential People

They entertain us, lead us and challenge us. TIME honors the icons who are defining the world in 2012
TIME 100: The List

Manal al-Sharif


By Aryn BakerWednesday, Apr. 18, 2012
Abduljalil Al-Nasser

With its vast, unpopulated deserts, low-slung buildings and cheap oil, Saudi Arabia is a kingdom made for cars. But for its women, who are barred from driving, even picking up the dry cleaning is considered subversive. Last spring, Manal al-Sharif, 32, a divorced mother of two, decided to take on the issue by posting on YouTube a video of herself driving the Saudi streets. Though al-Sharif was jailed for nine days and publicly shamed, she inspired a movement. An underground civil-disobedience campaign encouraged women to drive to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or the kids’ school. Those thankless errands may plague women elsewhere, but in Saudi Arabia, where they must rely on husbands, fathers and hired drivers to get around, they are a long-dreamed-of privilege.

Lifting the ban has gained much support, but it has also sparked a backlash. Other female drivers have been imprisoned, and some even lashed. But because of al-Sharif, Saudi women are beginning to get in the driver’s seat.

Baker is TIME‘s Middle East bureau chief

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A World of Possibilities

By Rick StengelWednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

The nature of influence changes. The word originates from the medieval idea that a magical liquid emanates from the stars to influence our actions on earth. Modern influence often comes from the magical ability of technology and social media to overcome time and distance and reorder our perceptions. Before microphones and television were invented, a leader had to stand in front of a crowd and bellow. Now she can tweet a phrase that reaches millions in a flash. Influence was never easier — or more ephemeral.

Which is why we try to choose those people whose influence is both lasting and, with a few notable exceptions, laudable. The economist Elinor Ostrom, who is on our list this year, has written about the tragedy of the commons, which is the idea that self-interest can undermine the common good. We look for the antidote to this: how individuals can start a chain reaction of virtue, shaping events in ways that can become both viral and enduring.

We are living in a transformative period in which leadership and influence emerge in unlikely places. Manal al-Sharif posted on YouTube a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia — women are barred from driving in the kingdom — and was jailed for nine days. Our categories — Breakouts, Pioneers, Moguls, Leaders and Icons — reflect the different types of influence demonstrated by people on the list. We look for those whose influence is at a tipping point. In Russia, Alexei Navalny is harnessing the growth of Internet use to connect protesters via blogging. While there are new types of influence, some are as old as Adam. In Egypt, Samira Ibrahim demonstrated old-fashioned courage by standing up to the military in a court of law over forced “virginity tests.”

This year, as in the past two, the most influential person in putting together the TIME 100 list was executive editor Radhika Jones, who edited the issue with her characteristic devotion to both breadth and depth. Managing the thousands of details that this entails fell to associate editor Feifei Sun. The fresh, inventive design was the handiwork of senior art director April Bell.

Statistician Hans Rosling made this year’s list not only because of his years on the front lines of public health in Africa but also because of how he uses statistics to change people’s perceptions of the world. “I am not an optimist,” Rosling says. He describes himself instead as a “possibilist.” The TIME 100 list is about the infinite possibilities of influence and the power of influence to change the world.

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150 Fearless Women of the World – Newsweek

My name came #14

A Weekend of Fearless Women: Tina Brown on Women in the World Summit

by Mar 12, 2012 5:45 AM EDT

From top girl crush Christine Lagarde on ‘Lehman Sisters’ to Meryl Streep riveted backstage and Hillary Clinton’s embrace of Burmese activist Zin Mar Aung, Tina Brown shares her favorite moments from the third Women in the World summit.

Something wonderful happened at this year’s third Women in the World Summit. It really was not just a summit, but a happening that brought out the very best in everyone on stage and off, at the Lincoln Center and at the United Nations, where my summit cohost Diane von Furstenberg presented the DVF awards to such women of courage as Jaycee Dugard.

So many mothers brought their daughters to the summit. So many daughters brought their mothers. Has Christine Lagarde, our guest at the opening night dinner, ever been more convincing or more captivating, with the sheen of her white satin jabot blouse matching her hank of silver hair? (For girl crushes in the dinner audience, Lagarde took the prize.) “If Lehman Brothers had been a bit more Lehman Sisters…we would not have had the degree of tragedy that we had as a result of what happened,” she told Niall Ferguson archly.

Let’s hope Lagarde is the next president of France.

Angelina Jolie was gravely authentic as she took the stage and summoned up the words of Dr. Hawa Abdi, facing terrible peril in Somalia from Islamist rebels menacing the hundred thousand refugees in her camp. Then, from the darkness, as Jolie slipped into the wings, we heard Abdi’s own voice, taped the day before by our executive producer Kyle Gibson, on how buoyed she was in adversity by the news she’d been just been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The only snag with being the onstage host was that I missed the excitement of seeing much of it unfold as the audience did, many of them attending every panel for two-and-a-half solid days. But sometimes backstage was a potent place to be, as Meryl Streep hung out in the wings in her playful Sergeant Pepper scarlet frock coat, riveted by the monitor just as much as little Suma Tharu. The 16-year-old former slave from Nepal, now a star student thanks to Room to Read, was waiting to go on stage and sing in her clear, poignant voice the lyrics she wrote of her life being tormented by a landlord: “Selfish were my mother and father / They gave birth to a daughter / Did you want to see me suffer, mother? / Did you want to see me suffer, father?”

Preparing for her own entrance, Hillary Clinton hung out back there, too, watching daughter Chelsea’s panel on the digital lives of girls, so relaxed, so content she seemed to be among the women she’s helped for so many unsung years. She had her arm wrapped affectionately around the small, intensely modest Zin Mar Aung, the 36-year-old who’d been imprisoned for 11 years in Burma for the crime of distributing pro-democracy leaflets on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi. Clinton knew Zin Mar Aung, of course, and had cared about her when no one else did.  On Thursday at the State Department, she bestowed on her an International Women of Courage Award. As Streep said in her masterful introduction of our soon-to-be-gone secretary of State, efforts on behalf of women have really constituted the “secret life of Hillary” all the way through her long career in public life.

(Could it be that Clinton’s mistake during her presidential campaign was to turn her talking points over to Mark Penn instead of letting her real constituency, the women who knew her story, tell the world who she really was?)

What was rewarding was the emotional transference between the heroes from overseas and the women and girls filling Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater.

“We have to be our own Gandhis, our own Kings, our own Mandelas,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee told the crowd, to cheers. “My definition of victimhood is the person who sits and waits for a knight in shining armor … it was always that way for me.”

Gbowee confessed to being bemused at American women’s passivity in the debate over reproductive rights: “I watched this and said to myself, ‘Where are the angry American women?!’ ”

Gbowee confessed to being bemused at the passivity of American women in the debate over reproductive rights currently roiling Capitol Hill. “I watched this and said to myself, ‘Where are the angry American women?!’ ” (Huge applause.) Her sentiment was picked up by the fabulously feisty young Kah Walla, who nearly won the presidency of Cameroon on the Cameroon People’s Party ticket. Women in Africa, she said, need to focus on boosting their representation in politics—but so, she added, do American women. “We don’t have critical mass,” she told the moderator Andrea Mitchell. “We need to be Sweden, Norway, Denmark—that needs to be the norm. We cannot accept that having 19 percent of women in the U.S. Congress is OK. And I think as women we need to understand: it is in the politics … until we get political power, we are not going to be able to make giant strides. Every woman in here needs to be involved in getting a woman elected.” Such thunderous applause to this, it made me want to load a bus up with all the mighty African women like her who have such uninhibited dramatic presence and take them on a political activism tour.

What’s exhilarating since the first Women in the World Summit three years ago are the advances women have made, overlooked by our scurrying, insular media world. There were tears in the audience that first occasion in 2010, when a West African mother, Marietou Diarra, sat on the stage in traditional dress and wept as she described how the tradition of female genital cutting, bequeathed through generations from mother to daughter, had killed her first infant daughter, from infection, and then her second at the age of 8.

In 2010, the translator of her words in Wolof was the woman who brought her, Molly Melching, nearly 40 years in West Africa running the liberating program Tostan, which works with village communities to abandon both cutting and child marriages. And there this year was Melching, translating again, but this time the deep voice of Demba Diawara, an elderly imam in a skullcap. He was emblematic of tradition in his tribal robes, and one expected to hear the voice of Melching’s opposition. The suspense of waiting for the Wolof to be turned into English made it all the more dramatic as he explained how he and the elders had come to realize the cutting custom inflicted pain unjustified by religion or reason. He was proud to say 5,000 villages have abandoned the customs. The end of them was in sight. Melching’s nearly 40 years of persistent, patient work epitomized what Clinton said was the very definition of what our summit was about.

In her closing remarks, Clinton said: “Being a woman in the world means never giving up on yourself, on your potential, on your future. It means getting up, working hard, and putting a country or a community on your back.

“What inspires me when I meet women around the world is not only who they are but what they do. They roll up their sleeves and they get to work,” she said. Women must “reject any efforts to marginalize any one of us…We must be fearless.”

Or as the actress Holland Taylor, in her delicious vignette as Gov. Ann Richards, told us in the voice of that incomparably ballsy Texan Democrat, “You women who shrink from public service…why should your life just be about you?”

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Tina Brown is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC’s Topic A with Tina Brown.

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Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers 2011 Arab Spring Panel Discussion

Global Thinkers Srdja Popovic, Manal al-Sharif, and Rached Ghannouchi join Foreign Policy editor Susan Glasser for a discussion on the revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011.
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A Few Brave Women Dare Take Wheel in Defiance of Saudi Law Against Driving

By Donna Abu-Nasr – May 11, 2011 12:00 AM GMT+0400

Manal, a 32-year-old woman, is planning something she’s never done openly in her native Saudi Arabia: Get in her car and take to the streets, defying a ban on female drivers in the kingdom.
Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn’t a protest, she said.

“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”
The risk the women are willing to take underscores both their exasperation with the restrictions and the infectious nature of the changes sweeping the region. Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s biggest oil reserves, so far has avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten officials in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
“These events have taught Saudi women to join ranks and act as a team,” said Wajeeha al-Howeider, a Saudi women’s rights activist, in a telephone interview from Dhahran. “This is something they could only have learned from those revolutions.”
Male Approval
Saudi Arabia enforces the ascetic Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit, even though some drive when they’re in the desert away from urban areas. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only ones the kingdom allows.
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops had massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of international media to ensure their story would reach the world and lessen the repercussions, according to Noura Abdullah, 55.
Abdullah was one of 47 drivers and passengers who stayed out for about an hour before being arrested. They were banned from travel for a year, lost their jobs for 2 1/2 years and were condemned by the powerful clergy as harlots.
Spread the Word
Now it’s “superb” that a younger generation is following in their footsteps, Abdullah said in an interview from Riyadh, the capital. She doesn’t have an international driver’s license, so she will help by spreading the word about the event with telephone calls, text messages and e-mails, she said.
“Their timing is perfect,” she added. “There’s momentum in Saudi Arabia now and that should help.”
King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure regional turmoil remains outside his borders, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. He also has promised to improve the status of women. He opened the first co- educational university in 2009; appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year; and has said he will provide more access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.
A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the labor law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.”
‘Largely Symbolic’
Human Rights Watch said in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.” While the United Nations ranked the kingdom in the top one-third of nations in its 2010 Human Development Report — higher than Brazil and Russia — its score for gender equality was much lower. On that measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, Saudi Arabia was 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.
The campaign Manal is helping to organize, called “I will drive starting June 17,” is the latest effort by Saudi women this year to express their desire for more rights. On April 23, a group of 15 women showed up at a registration center in the western city of Jeddah, asking to participate in the September election, the Arab News reported a day later. While they were denied entry, they were permitted to relay their demands to Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, the head of the district office, the Arab News said.
Facebook Fans
The protest against the driving ban has attracted almost 800 Facebook fans since it began May 6.
“We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities,” the organizers said on their page. “We are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”
Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric, dismissed the campaign, saying statements he makes about religious issues that are posted on websites have received more than 24,000 page views in a day.
The plan is “against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law,” al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes “more harm than good” to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren’t related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.
“Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will,” al-Nujaimi said.
Other Support
Three telephone calls by Bloomberg News to the mobile phone of a press officer at Saudi Arabia’s Traffic Department, which enforces transit rules in the country, weren’t answered.
The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he’s joined the effort because “these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government.”
“They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned,” al- Yacoub said.
Ghada Abdul-Latif, a 31-year-old rights activist, said she will support the effort by filming it and posting it online; she won’t drive for fear of being jailed before her wedding in June.
“It is a courageous campaign,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian. “It feels so weird to consider such a human right a courageous movement. But it is in a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is trying to live against the current and life and history.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai at