تدوينتي: مذكرات منقبة سابقة في ذا ديلي بيست


Saudi Activist Manal Al-Sharif on Why She Removed the Veil

One of Saudi Arabia’s preeminent activists, who led the right-to-drive movement, describes her decision to take off the niqab.
No piece of cloth throughout history has sparked more controversy as the veil. Many Muslim women are forced to wear it daily. The hijab has a spectrum, of course, from its most radical embodiments, the niqab, which covers the entire face, to loose fitting headscarves.

Saudi Arabia comes come second only to Iran in using the power of the stick (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or the religious police) to impose a particular form and color of hejab on all our women. And when I say all our women, I mean all: Saudi and non-Saudi, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The sheer size of the country means that each and every region of Saudi Arabia contains a great diversity of cultures, dialects and religious sects. Until the seventies, women here were free to wear almost whatever they wanted. Bedouin women wore bright clothes and burqas, the parting of their hair and their kohl-lined eyes left exposed. The women of the city donned their abayas, the fabric drawn in around their waists. The Arab women wore their colored hejabs, and the non-Muslim women dressed modestly and without a veil.

The women in my father’s village, Tarfa, to the north-west of Mecca, wore bright clothes with pink and white scarves wrapped around their heads and necks. Like the Bedouins, they left their faces and the parting of their hair exposed.

This all changed when the state-supported wave of religious fanaticism struck our society. The black abaya and facial covering was imposed on all female government employees, and on schools and universities. And the black hejab was imposed on all non-Saudi women, regardless of their religion or creed. It was unthinkable to see a woman in my hometown, Mecca, who did not wear the niqab; revealing your face was a social taboo and was haram in the eyes of religion. Leaflets were widely distributed during that era saying that facial covering was what separated the Muslim woman from the infidel. The fanaticism spread even to children: even before I took off my niqab for good, a ten-year-old-girl next to me on a plane called me an “infidel” when I lifted my veil to eat a meal.

One leaflets distributed during the period of Islamic awakening read:

“My Muslim sister; today, you face a relentless and cunning war waged by the enemies of Islam with the purpose of reaching you and removing you from your impenetrable fortress. One of the things that these enemies of Islam are trying to discredit and eliminate is the hejab. Some of them even said that the situation in the East would not be righted until the hejab had been raised from the woman’s face and used to cover the Koran!”

This same ideology was exported out of Saudi Arabia by the power of the petrodollar. I remember the days of the Bosnian war (1992—1995), when Saudi Arabia sent convoys of aid to those besieged in Sarajevo. The people in charge of the convoys distributed the hejab to the besieged women along with the cartons of food.

It came to the point where the only acceptable interpretation of Islamic hejab in Saudi was for woman to shroud her face and body completely in black. Though, to anyone from outside our borders, one Saudi woman appeared utterly indistinguishable from the next, Saudis developed a unique ability to recognize the woman who languished in the blackness. My father knew me apart from the dozens of other girls outside the school or university walls; he never mixed me up with another girl. Similarly, we never failed to recognize our relatives or friends if we came across them in the mall or mosque.

We developed a great sensitivity to the characteristics and attributes of those around us: their voices, the way they arranged their niqab, their eyes, their gait, and even the type of abaya and handbag and shoe they wore. And young men developed a sense for the age of a girl and her physique, purely from the way she walked.

After that came the nineties, which brought with it satellite channels, and after that the turn of the millennium, which heralded the evolution of new forms of communication: the internet and smart phones. At last we had access to views that challenged the status quo—the single opinion that had so long been presented to us as the only correct choice. It was the only one, we were told, which follows the way of the Prophet and truly represents Islam. Our conservative society began to posit questions and raise doubts about things that had—by the power of religion and with the blessing of the state—been so long imposed on us as givens.

One of the first things to be questioned was the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of hejab, but for me personally, that didn’t make the matter any easier. When I decided to remove the niqab in 2002, I faced a bitter war with my family and society. My mother wore the niqab during the period of the Islamic awakening, and though she relinquished it on our travels outside Saudi, she opposed the fact that I had taken it off at home. The reason was social, not religious: “My daughter, no one will marry you if you show your face!”

If the people I passed on the streets of Mecca knew me to be a Saudi, I’d face harsh and disapproving looks. One day I was performing tawaf, and the observer—whose job was to regulate the movements of people around the Kaaba—berated me loudly about my lack of niqab every time I passed him. “Cover your face, woman!” he shouted. The third time, I used my finger to indicate the people around me: “All these women with uncovered faces; are they disobedient too? Or is it only me that’s sinning, because I am Saudi?” I completed the rest of my circuits without hearing another word.

Though I didn’t wear the niqab in the street or in my place of work, I had to borrow a friend’s niqab to enter the courtroom, since women were not allowed to enter government facilities—courts in particular—with their faces uncovered. I was forced to bring two male “identity verifiers” to assert who I was, despite the fact that I carried my ID card with me.

While the uncovering of women’s faces might have been the biggest change to happen to Saudi society, it wasn’t the only one women dared to make. A group of girls in Jeddah began to wear colored abayas; soon, robes in grey, navy blue and dark brown could be seen in the city’s abaya shops. When these same colors began to appear in Riyadh, the religious police launched a campaign of confiscating them from the shops. “If this was their reaction to brown and grey,” I wondered, “how would they react to the sight of pink or red?” I wanted to try it out.

I went to the shop I usually dealt with and asked if they could make me a colorful abaya, but the owner flatly refused: “If a colored abaya was seen in my shop, I would be questioned and harassed by the men of the religious police!” But my friends pointed me to one of the shops that was happy to custom-make colorful designs and deliver them to its customers out of sight of the religious police.

The other change was in the symbolism of the abaya—its significance was no longer of a religious and social nature only. Rather, it came to be treated wholly as a fashion item, with trends that came and went over time just as with any other item of clothing. We saw the emergence of fashion designers who specialized in creating abayas. They held fashion shows to promote their latest lines.

Depending on the fame of the designer, the quality of the fabric and the materials used in the embroidery, the prices could be as high as tens of thousands of riyals apiece. Different types of abaya emerged for different occasions: the abaya intended for work or for going to the mall was characterized by its practicality, and the abayas for special occasions were characterized by their embroidery and luxurious design. There were even abayas for winter and summer.

In spite of all these changes, the force of the state continued to impose the black abaya in public. Advocates claimed that it helped to preserve virtue and to affirm the application of Sharia law. What they conveniently overlooked was that the imposition of a certain type of dress on one section of the population was a precedent that had never before been set in the whole of the country’s history. The form and color of clothes had long been left to the society to decide for themselves, and the authorities had cared little about how it looked as long as it was decent.

The imposition of the black abaya is unnatural: it represents nothing but an obstruction on normal life and on the natural evolution that occurs in people’s manner and form of dress, something that has occurred throughout history on the basis of people’s needs and changing circumstances.

Manal al Sharif was arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia and is one of the Kingdom’s most famous women’s rights activists

التدوينة بالعربي هنا:


Living Two Lives

Every time I leave the country, as I stand before the passport control officer in his usual military attire, I hold my breath on two accounts. My first fear is that a travel ban – an oft-received punishment by people like me, human rights advocates – will see me sent directly back home again.

My second is that my father, my assigned male guardian according to Saudi law, decides to revoke the travel permission he granted me. I can envision my father doing this either out of fear for my own safety or else as a response to the ongoing pressure he receives from people around him or from our al Sharif tribe. It’s strange the way that other countries punish activism with exile, yet in Saudi it’s the other way around: those who protest the system are doomed with internal exile! There is a well-known saying timidly mumbled by Saudis amongst themselves:

“The best place in Saudi is the airport through which I leave the country”.

The moment the passport control officer stamps my passport, an indescribable feeling rushes through my veins. The cage door is open; I’m a free bird once again. But how can one’s own country be a punishment in and of itself?

I could list tens of reasons, but personally I find that the agony of living in duplicity tops them all. The saying I quoted above reveals a lot about the forced duplicitous nature of the Saudi people’s existence: adhering to the the abnormally extreme societal and religious restraints imposed on them on the one hand, and living a normal life – or the life they want to live – on the other.

What follows is a list of just a few examples of duplicity in modern-day Saudi Arabia:

1- Although cinemas are banned in Saudi by law/fatwa, there are more than 170 cinemas in Saudi Arabia. All of them are located in residential compounds that Saudis cannot enter. Now add to that the huge Mega and Virgin stores that sell movies on DVDs, not to mention the fact that most prominent satellite Arab channels are owned and run by Saudi money.

2- Although alcohol is also banned in Saudi, it’s not difficult to find local alcohol dealers who will deliver whatever your heart desires to the privacy of your own home.

3- There are more than 10 million non-Saudis living in Saudi. Everyone knows that they come from different religions (Christianity, Hinduism, etc.) but when it comes to official numbers, Saudi authorities insist that the Saudi Arabia’s population is 100% Muslim.

4- Saudi law bans women from traveling without a Mahram (a male relative that woman cannot marry). But a woman can travel without a Mahram as long as if her “guardian in charge” gives his written permission! Similarly, when it comes to the issue of women driving, fatwas ban women from being alone with a non-mahram even if he is her cousin or brother-in-law. Yet, it is entirely expected that she will use a non-mahram driver.

As a Saudi woman, I am forced to live double the duplicity just to survive. When I got a job offer from Saudi Aramco back in 2002, my family had to guard the fact that their daughter worked in a mixed environment and that I lived alone 850 miles away from the “surveillance” of any male guardian.

Saudi Aramco was the first company in the Kingdom to have men and women work together in the same office space. According to the previous Saudi labor Law, a mixed work environment was prohibited. The new labor law that was passed in 2005 (3 years after I joined Aramco) annulled that particular regulation. It also annulled the rule that required women to have a male guardian’s permission in order to work; nevertheless, most employers in Saudi still require it. I remember the first thing a friend said to me when she found out that I worked in a mixed environment: “You will never get married”. The irony: I married a Saudi co-worker, whom I later divorced.

Hypocrisy is also very useful when dealing with impractical and sometimes absurd laws. Take the Ministry of Higher Education as an example. There are now over 27,500 female students participating in the King Abdullah international scholarship program. My elder sister, a doctor, was one of them, until they stopped her scholarship benefits two years ago. The reason? She was not accompanied by a male family member while studying abroad. Ministry of Higher Education official statistics show that half of applicants to the program are females, but the number who are actually eligible is reduced dramatically by their inability or unwillingness to comply with this bizarre requirement, which authorities argue is based on Islamic fatwa. Those who have basic knowledge of Sharia (Islamic law) know that only one of the four Sunna scholars considers a Mahram (companion) to be a mandatory requirement for a female traveling abroad. So a male companion while residing in another country is not required!

Female students come up with creative workarounds to be able to study abroad. Some marry (on paper) just for the sake of having a male companion, and when they travel abroad, each of the marital partners leads their own life until the program is finished. Other female students take the male companion for the first few weeks to finish the paperwork and show a face at the Cultural Attaché office.

When I was detained in 2011 and sent to jail for being a woman driving a car, I met Hana, a 26-year-old woman who was waiting for more than a year for her male guardian to bail her out. Even when a Saudi woman prisoner has served her sentence, she cannot be released until her appointed male guardian has bailed her out. I brought Hana’s issue to the jail warden’s attention. He told me he was aware of her problem, a common one when the girl’s family is ashamed by her and refuse to accept her back, and that he was in the process of finding her a husband to bail her out! I couldn’t believe my ears!

Officials say that they are applying Sharia laws, while clerics say that they are protecting customs and traditions. At the same time, society enshrines customs and traditions, while laws codify them. It is all becoming a big mishmash where you have no clue who is responsible and who is to blame for the enforced living of a double life or for Saudi’s attempts to build an Islamic Utopia on behalf of the whole Muslim world, even when a large number of us are just pretending rather than genuinely believing in it. I once read a funny comment on this polemic situation: “Saudi authorities solve the world’s problems with money, and Saudi problems with fatwas”.

Hypocrisy in the Saudi system extends from officials to its religious establishment, with a knock-on effect in its society.. The infamous Saudi cleric Al Arifi, who happens to be the most followed Arab on Twitter, is the perfect embodiment of the religious establishment’s dilemma: it must strike a balance between preserving its grip on the Saudi society, which it does through rigid interpretation and intolerance to difference, such as the Shia’a, whilst simultaneously gaining acceptance from an international community that does not welcome displays of intolerance. Al Arifi is known for tweeting opinions of hate against the Shia’a in the Middle East, and encouraging Saudi youth to go for jihad in Syria against the infidel Alawi. Surprisingly, however, all those views were overturned on his last visit to London. The headlines about his visit went something like this: “Al Arifi calls Sunna and Shia’a to unite and renounce differences”!!

Living a double life creates so much pressure on those forced to do so., You get a sense of this when reading Saudi tweets, the only podium where we can voice our views. The tweets usually revolve around three things:

1- Harsh criticism of one another and extreme curiosity about others’ personal lives. People show off the superiority of their own faith by questioning the conduct of others..

2- Harsh attacks against Shia’a and anyone who is different. If you are different, then you are our enemy, even if your opinion is the only thing that is different about you.

3- Harsh attacks on anyone who dares to question clerics or challenge a status quo.

Surprisingly, Saudis who live abroad seldom tweet about such issues! Or if they do, at least not in such harsh way. Maybe because they are relieved from the daily pressure we face within Saudi that causes everyone to get on your nerves as a result of the slightest interaction.

I have always wondered how to end the agony of living two lives, following two standards, being two-faced… It has to start with the people in power; here I mean the government and the religious establishment, and I am witnessing some progress. The government uses religion to control people, but when religion tries to control the government, things don’t go so smoothly. When the religious establishment tried to stop women from being part of the Shura Council in September 2011, for example, the government completely ignored their demands.

It was a big debate in Saudi, probably the second biggest after the debate on women driving. The same religious establishment that is known for resisting almost every new thing that arrives in Saudi ends up making heavy use of that thing almost every time. TV, radio, women’s education, satellite dishes, internet, camera phones and social media, to name a few. The excuse is always that they are using it for a good cause. But the truth is that people obey at the start and boycott, then with time, you find everyone using what was initially declared haram.

I see more and more Saudis, especially the young ones, stand up for what they believe in, even if it earns them a great deal of criticism and attacks. I see them challenge the once-unchallengeable, mostly when they come back from abroad and start realising the comparisons. For me it’s a baby step, but this is how babies learn to walk! One day, when my daughter makes decisions about her major in school, whether or not to wear hijab, the husband she wishes to marry, the movie she wants to watch in the cinema, I will know she will not feel what I feel every time I leave Saudi. Because she will be as true to herself there as she is anywhere else in the world!

Published April 18, 2014

When will Saudi women drive?

Every time I meet someone from outside Saudi Arabia, the conversation always ends in the same question: “How long do you think it will be before women in Saudi are allowed to drive?”

I wish I had a simple answer for this issue, which should, by basic human rights, be much less complex than it is. But before I address this, I will answer another common question: “Why don’t – or rather can’t – women drive in Saudi Arabia?”

In fact, the Saudi government has never issued a royal decree stipulating the ban, nor even imposed a system. (In Saudi Arabia, there are systems rather than laws: from a religious point of view, laws are considered to be in violation of Shari’ah, because they come from a human perspective).

The ban is merely based on the Ministry of Interior, which was issued in 1990 in response to the first women’s movement demanding the right to drive. The decree, which forbids women to drive on Saudi Arabian territory, did not specify a punishment.

It was reasserted by the Ministry on October 25, 2013, one day before the date on which Saudi women had chosen to launch a third driving campaign which is still held on a monthly basis.

As represented in statements given by the new Interior Minister Mohamed bin Naif and his father who was the former Interior Minister, Naif bin Abdulaziz, both insist that the Interior Ministry is an executive and not a legislative body, that it is not responsible for the ban.

If we examine the Basic System of Governance, which corresponds to something like a constitution in the rest of the world, Article 8 states “governance in Saudi Arabia is to be conducted on the basis of justice, equality and consultation in accordance with Shari’ah”. And if we look at the Saudi system relating to traffic, we do not find any provision or stipulation preventing women from obtaining a driving licence.

These are the only two sources we have to consider in connection with this issue. The statement released by the Ministry of Interior in 1990 is rendered null and void by the fact that it was not based on the governing system.

But on the occasions that I and many others have tried to obtain a driver’s licence from the traffic department, we have been surprised, upon entering our identification numbers into the relevant system, to find an error message appearing on the screen: “The ID number entered belongs to a woman, it is not possible for a woman to obtain a driving licence”.

When I raised the issue with the administrative court in November 2011, wishing to make a case against the General Directorate of Traffic, and pointing out the lack of legal ban preventing a licence being issued to me, my case was referred to a special committee at the Ministry of Interior. In other words, to the very party I wished to prosecute.

When you hear the words “special committee” in Saudi Arabia, you know your case has been relegated to oblivion. And this has remained my fate until today.

We can conclude from all this that the Interior Minister is the executive body as well as being the issuer of the ban and the body that upholds it, which contradicts the statements made by both the Saudi Interior Ministers.

Now, a review of some of the reasons people give for the ban. Firstly, financial: influential families control the visa market for drivers. If they allowed women to drive, these families would lose huge financial returns from a market in which official figures indicate the existence of around a million drivers and which unofficial numbers suggest could contain as many as two million.

And secondly, a fatwa issued by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, issued concurrently with the Ministry of Interior’s 1990 decree and forbidding driving based on the Islamic principle of prohibiting that which might eventually lead to sin.

The justifications cited by the prohibition fatwa are nothing more than suppositions about what will happen to society if women are allowed to drive.

This has led to a situation in which denying women the right to drive, something which has no basis in the Muslim law, has taken precedence over prohibiting women to be alone with a non-Mahram male (which is prohibited in Shari’ah), as the woman inevitably must be chauffeured around.

In my opinion, the real reason is much simpler than all this. If a woman had asserted their right to drive since the day cars arrived in Saudi Arabia, it would by now be a routine matter and we would be dealing with none of the current clamour and uproar.

This is the reason that Bedouin women and women from the countryside drive comfortably outside of the city without being subject to hindrance or criticism. The banning of women from driving in the city is a result of the system of state that has been systemically imposed upon it; women in Saudi Arabia are considered minors under the law until the day that they die.

We will return now to the question that, in recent times, has become an ever more frequent topic of discussion: when will women in Saudi Arabia be able to drive? Many assume that the issue of allowing women to drive will be resolved with a royal decree, as happened with the appointment of 30 women in the Shura council in September 2011.

This decision, which was followed closely by many parties interested in the Saudi state of affairs, represented an attempt to improve the image of Saudi Arabia after a scandal involving an imprisoned woman driver garnered widespread attention.

But those who know anything about the distribution of power in Saudi Arabia know that there are several different competing parties within the royal family, each with its own ideologies and interests.

They also recognise that King Abdullah does not have the powers required to issue such a decree, and that the subject of women driving is entirely in the hands of the Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif; the King has no authority when it comes to this department.

Will a positive decision be issued by the Ministry of Interior? That seems improbable. More than 24 years after the first attempt to abolish the women’s driving ban, there seems not to have been a single breakthrough; there are no driving schools for women, nor any female traffic police.

Saudi police are still intent on stopping any woman who dares to drive, booking her car and summoning her guardian-in-charge to sign a pledge not to allow her to do so.

The authorities, in effect, show no leniency towards women drivers, as we who were demanding the right to drive hoped they might have done. The authorities also worry that responding to demands to allow women to drive will damage the prestige of the state and open the door to other popular demands for social and perhaps political change.

When will women be able to drive? We must recognise that the Bedouin woman never ceased –since the horse and donkey were replaced with the car, or the side-dagger with a rifle – to use new inventions to ease her life and affairs. Whether in the farmlands or the desert of Saudi Arabia, not one of her fellow men dared to doubt her chastity, her morals or her religious belief.

Meanwhile, the woman of the city has willingly parted with her rights and allowed everyone to compromise them, or else to use them for political gain or as a red herring to distract people from more salient issues.

In my opinion, freedom is a personal decision, not a political one. When the Saudi woman realises this fact, she will get in her car and drive it as many times as it takes for it to become a common sight, forcing the authorities to regulate the phenomenon rather than prosecute it.

And when she learns that rights are seized rather than granted, she will recognise how to eliminate the male dominion that has been imposed on her and cast her as a minor her whole life.


Congratulation for your marriage to another man…. My Love

During a session of “girl’s talk”, where Eve enjoys backbiting Adam, this story was mentioned:

“He called to find her crying. He asked; what is wrong?

She replied; I had a marriage proposal and I should go now to meet his mother.

He said; Wipe your tears my love, to not destroy your beauty in front of my mother.”

The local version

“He called to find her crying. He asked; what is wrong?

She replied; I had a marriage proposal and I should go now to meet his mother.

He said; Wipe your tears my love to go to meet his mother. He might be better than me and love you more than me. Congratulation for marriage in advance!”

Many comments from anti-Eastern men followed this story. Comments like: “men hold a girl in suspense for years with dreams and illusions of getting married, then when he wants to get married, she is the furthest option of his future wife”. Another: “even if he married her, he will keep considering this a favour of him or he will humiliate her because she fell in love before marriage, and some cases he might doubt her or marry again.”

These were my friends’ comments however; I had a point of view that Eve might not agree with:

It is easier to blame others for our misfortunes. Eastern women play the role of the victim like professional inferiors. Men control her whether he is a father or a husband, or even sometimes a brother or a son. Society plays a role in creating this idea when it convinces her that she is less than a man. She cannot take the control of her own affairs, although she is responsible for managing her home affairs. She is not close to the perfection that men have reached despite all their shortcomings. Male will remain superior to female. The worst is when those brand-new habits that underestimate the women turn to be written laws using doubtful hadiths to back them up. I call them brand new habits because they appeared during my Mother’s generation but not in my Grandmother’s generation. – God rest her soul – who raised her children after the death of my grandfather, planted her land and managed her house, her sheep and all her own affairs by herself.

A Mother is blameworthy when she puts in her son’s mind indirectly that he is better than his sister is, allowing for him what is forbidden for his sister to do and ignoring his mistakes while punishing her daughter for committing the same mistake. A girl is blameworthy in case she derives confidence from the number of her suitors. when she sets her sights on the man she loves even if he did not express an intention to marry her, making him all her life while she is only a part of his life which he can replace with another whenever he wants. She is at his disposal, and feels happy for his privilege even if he causes her sadness and forgives his faults, while she does not expect the same.  She has to be an angel, not a normal woman to win his love, his heart and the wedding ring, which she may not ever see.

The wife also is blameworthy when she waives her right of being a full-fledged partner of a man in his life, sharing the same responsibility of housework and raising children. Does the wife know that legitimately she should not serve her husband, or even take his permissions in her personal affairs, yet share his opinion only? Does she know that guardianship means managing her affairs, serving her and not a matter of owner and slave as we see today? Even the divorcee is blameworthy when she gathers all her things in a bag with her broken heart and leaves her marital house believing that this protects her dignity? Ignorant or ignoring that it is her legal right and the right of her children to her house? How did things overturn? Then she asks why does a man humiliate her? However, she humiliated herself first when either she waived her rights out of ignorance or out of love. Eve is the first to be blamed for diminishing her rights, even if it was her moral right to be respected! Yet, the man is one who wrote the rules in the woman’s life and she followed without any questioning!


The dream of every man is to be the first in her life; however, the dream of every woman is to be the last in his life.

Glamour: The Story That’s Inspired The World

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.


Dangerous driver: Manal al-Sharif after defying Saudi ban on women driving

Freedom is to Live with Dignity

“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”

Manal al-Sharif

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.”



أريد وظيفة لا قيادة سيارة!

خرجت بعض المغردات على موقع التواصل الاجتماعي «تويتر» بهاشتاق «أنا عاطلة أريد وظيفة لا قيادة سيارة»، وسجلن في تغريداته  مطالباتهن لعضوات مجلس الشورى المعينات بجعل ملف البطالة أولوية عند مناقشة قضايا المرأة، خصوصاً أن نسبة البطالة بين النساء بلغت ٨٤ في المئة، بحسب تصريح وزير العمل الأخير، وأبدين امتعاضهن من «غياب حس الأولويات» عند من يؤيد حق المرأة السعودية في قيادة السيارة… ردت المؤيدات لحق القيادة بالامتعاض أيضاً، إذ كتبن «مع غياب المواصلات العامة، والنقل المؤسساتي الآمن، ثلث الراتب سيذهب للسائق، هذا إن وجد وكان ملتزماً في مواعيده»، وهي حقيقة، إذ ذكرت لي مرة مديرة مركز سيدات الأعمال في الغرفة التجارية في المنطقة الشرقية هند الزاهد، أن أكثر من ٦٠ في المئة من العاطلات اللاتي رفضن الوظائف التي عُرضت عليهن ذكرن سببين لذلك، الأول: عدم توفر المواصلات، أو أن المواصلات تستنفد الجزء الأكبر من الراتب، والسبب الآخر عدم موافقة ولي الأمر – مع تحفظي على مسمى ولي أمر لامرأة بالغة راشدة.

لست هنا للدخول في معمعة الجدال العقيم الذي استمر لما يزيد على العقدين في موضوع تجاوزته كل بلاد الدنيا، لكنني هنا لتسجيل بعض ما يدور بخلدي كلما رأيت الحزبين «المؤيد والمعارض» في مد وجزر عند مناقشة أحد الحقوق… بداية اسمحوا لي أن أطرح بعض التساؤلات التي سأترك إجاباتها للقارئ الكريم: هل الحقوق مجزأة، أم كُل لا يتجزأ؟ هل الحقوق يُصوت عليها؟ من يحدد الأولويات في سلم الحقوق؟ هل الأولويات واحدة عند الجميع، أم كل بحسب حاجته؟ هل المطالبة بحق من الحقوق سيعطل الحصول على البقية؟ أيهما أجدى بالجهد: المطالبة بما تراه أولوية عندك، أم مهاجمة من يطالب بغير ذلك؟ هل سمعت يوماً بشخص طالب «بعدم منحه حقوقه»؟ لكن السؤال الأهم: هل يحق لمن تنازل عن حقوقه، أو الراضي بالوضع القائم، لعب دور الوصي لإخراس البقية؟

تخيل أن بحر الحقوق ما هو إلا قطرات كثيرة ومتتالية من المطر، فلولا القطرات ما كان البحر، وكذلك أي عمل، أو مطالبات تسعى لانتزاع حق أو لتحقيق مصلحة عامة، لن يتحقق ذلك إلا بجمع الأعمال الفردية التي يُضحي الفرد فيها بالكثير، ويواجه الكثير من أجل أن يُضاف عمله مع أعمال البقية لتحقيق الهدف الأكبر وهو الحصول على المواطنة الكاملة للمرأة السعودية… لو لم تكن من القطرات، لا تسخر من القطرات التي تهبط وتتجمع لتصنع البحر ولا تحاول قمعها… ولو كنت من القطرات لا تضيع وقتك في الدخول في جدال ومنازعات لا تقدم ولا تؤخر… لا تستصغر البقية، أو تستحقر عملها، فمن دونها ستظل مجرد قطرة تبخرها أول أشعة للشمس… كن فقط القطرة التي تصنع البحر.

أخرج ابن عساكر في تاريخ دمشق عن الأوزاعي قال: «إذا أراد الله بقوم شراً فتح عليهم الجدل ومنعهم العمل»… جعلنا الله ممن يعملون ولا يجادلون، وإذا كنا لا نعمل جعلنا الله ممن يتكلمون خيراً أو يصمتون.

قفشة: انتشرت صورة ميكروباص مكتوب على زجاجه الخلفي «لتوصيل الطالبات والمعلمات وعضوات مجلس الشورى»، أبشركم يتم تخصيص سيارات مع سائقيها لأعضاء وعضوات مجلس الشورى.

نشرته صحيفة الحياة

مقابلتي في برنامج سيرة وضيف – فرانس ٢٤



San Francisco Freedom Forum Speech

Good morning, my name is Manal al Sharif, I come from the kingdom of Saudi men…

It is an immense and totally unexpected honor to be here, among all of you, and in the presence of so many people I admire and have looked up to. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Yang Jianli, Marina Nemat, you are all role models for me. You are living proof that the struggle is worth it and that it takes both determination and patience to move the mountains that hinder our path to true freedom and prosperity.

If someone told me a year ago that I would be standing here today I would not have believed it. Back then I was just a single mom who worked as an information security specialist to support her family. Although, I am unemployed today, I am happier and more filled with purpose than ever.

Recently I have I learnt that speaking out against the status quo is indeed the most difficult thing to do.

In my case, the status quo I had challenged was my nation’s ban on women driving. For outsiders the issue is hard to grapple with. Few can understand the depth of the issue as it is such a non issue in the rest of the world. But in Saudi Arabia women driving goes beyond the mundane matter of a woman getting her hands on the wheel. It is all about the political, social and economical consequences of lifting such ban.

The freedom of movement that lifting the ban implies is what has the conservative factions within our society so rigid about maintaining it. The money raked from importing over a million foreign drivers from South East Asia to drive women around is an opportunity for profit that many are not willing to relinquish. And more importantly, calls for change from the people are not welcomed at all in an absolute monarchy that demands allegiance from its citizens by professing to be the sole protectors of their faith and well-fare.

This might explain the backlash I got when I uploaded a YouTube video in which I talked – while driving – about lifting the ban and proposed June 17th as a day to begin getting our country used to seeing women in the driver’s seat. I was under the false impression that Saudi society was opening up and that the government was also pushing towards more opportunities for women.

But I guess I miscalculated. For my ‘crime’ I was jailed for nine days while the whole country went into a frenzy, some criticizing and some in support. Many within the religious establishment took the Friday prayer sermon as an opportunity to condemn me. They called me a traitor, an evil doer, a conspirator and one cleric went as far as to say that I should have been flogged.

Those who saw fit to jail me unintentionally did a great deal to insure the success of theJune 17th movement; tens of women across the country took to the wheel with many of them uploading their own videos on YouTube. These were women I had never met, and who had never heard about me before I was jailed. They went out to join theJune 17th initiative and risked jail themselves. I am happy to say that sanity prevailed and not a single woman was jailed that day, yet we did get the first ever ticket issued to a woman in the history of Saudi.

For all my tech savvy, just a few years ago, I would never have been able to reach out – or to offend – so many of my countrymen and women. In an absolute monarchy where people are imprisoned without charge – sometimes for years, for starting an NGO, protesting in the streets or even publishing an essay that questions the government, there were no platforms from which average citizens could air their views.

Not until social media came along. What most in the world use for information, recreation and to stay in touch with family and friends, in Saudi Arabia has become a democratic sandbox, our personal bully pulpit, and yes, our comfort blanket and shield.

Social media has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the June 17th initiative grew into a whole campaign that encompassed not only the ban on women driving but so much more. Through social media a fluid and grass-root campaign was born, the Right to Dignity campaign, whose members have grown to thousands of Saudi men and women across the country. The only way that the campaign communicates with its members is through social media.

And since the local press will not cover our demands, we send our press releases, petitions and statements through Twitter. We would not have gotten very far without Twitter.

Some people have called our movement the Saudi Women’s Spring. But, let’s be serious, we are still way behind the starting point of those revolutions. 50% of our population is yet to achieve basic rights that others take for granted as they fight for real democracy.

Yet, I’m happy to report some positive changes have accrued in the last year:

Although physical education is still not a part of the state girl schools’ curriculum and access to sports facilities is rare for Saudi women, I’m happy that we’ve finally, as you’ve all probably heard, had the historic achievement of opening the door and having Saudi women compete in the Olympics.

In June 2011, King Abdullah decreed that women would be allowed to work openly in retail and take jobs such as sales clerks and cashiers. Although transportation and guardianship laws remain an obstacle in the way of women empowerment, this decree has allowed over 40 thousand women a means of supporting themselves and their families.

In September 2011, King Abdullah issued another landmark decree that women will have the right to stand and vote in future local elections and join the advisory Shura council as full members. Though there is no denying that it remains a stick in the throat for most Saudis that all 150 members of the council are appointed by the king rather than voted in by the people.

As of 2012 we have had 131 thousands undergraduate and postgraduate students studying abroad, almost half of them are girls despite the fact that many of the professions they are studying for are unlicensed for women in Saudi, such as practicing law. I hope that by the time they finish and come home that obstacle will be removed and the nation can take full advantage of their investment.

Beyond our borders we have received all kinds of solidarity that I hope Saudi authorities do not interpret as a challenge but as encouragement. Among many things I’d like to mention two:

I’m particularly proud of being the recipient of the Havel Prize which I received in Oslo earlier this year. And was move by the work of many artists who showed solidarity with our movement such as the beautiful pop star MIA and her song “Bad Girls”.

Like I said before, in this young absolute monarchy of only 80 years there is very little room for average citizens to voice their concerns or gain a platform. There are no representatives of the people with executive power and a push for change has traditionally either been imposed from the top down or pushed for through tribal and religious establishments that women are completely excluded from.

Social media and speeches like the one I’m giving right now are the main tools that are available to Saudi women who want to absolve the gender apartheid and build a better and stronger Saudi Arabia where every citizen, regardless of sex, is treated with dignity and respect.

The Right to Dignity campaign and I work towards a Saudi where an adult woman won’t have to need her son’s permission to travel, where women will not need the escort of their guardian abuser to leave the safe house they escaped him to, a Saudi where women can easily obtain a means of supporting themselves, a Saudi where it is unquestionable that a girl has a right to her childhood. All we want is a Saudi Arabia that respects the humanity of women.

I have been told before ( it’s not the right time, if you love your country you must wait)..

I would like to answer them:

I’m proud to be a Saudi women and because I love my country I will not wait. Women rights is not a special interest or a privilege. Women rights or lack of them affects the whole society! Societies that keep women in the back seat, will always be on the wrong side of history.

«قيادة» المرأة في ٢٢ عاماً

قد تكون المرة الأولى التي أكتب فيها مقالاً عن هذا الموضوع، وأتمنى أن تكون الأخيرة. فموضوع قيادة المرأة للسيارة تمدد وتوسع بشكل مخجل على حساب التحديات الرئيسية التي تواجهها المرأة السعودية. وتمت محاربة أي شخص تجرأ أن يتسائل (إلى متى؟) بطريقة متشنجة حتى ظننا أنه نطق بكلمة الكفر، ما جعلنا نكتة للعالم أجمع. بينما كان بإمكان الجهات التشريعية والتنفيذية إغلاق هذا الباب منذ زمن  بسن القوانين المنظمة، وإتخاذ خطوات تمهيدية تحل الأزمة المفتعلة إذا غيرت المرأة مكانها في السيارة من المقعد الأيمن إلى المقعد الأيسر. ولنفهم عمق هذه المشكلة سأضع بين يديك قراءة في الخط الزمني لهذا الموضوع، تبدأ منذ أول محاولة لمواجهة الحظر القائم.

في زمن حرب الخليج الثانية وفي يوم ٦ نوفمبر ١٩٩٠ قامت ٤٧ امرأة سعودية، من بينهن ١٠ من حاملات درجة الدكتوراة ومعلمات ألتزمن جميعهن باللباس المحتشم،  بقيادة ١٤ سيارة شجعهن مشهد الكثير من الأخوات الكويتيات والمجندات الأمريكيات خلف مقود القيادة في شوارع الرياض. كان المشهد مستفزاً للمتشددين الذين يعارضون التواجد الأمريكي على الأراضي السعودية ماجعل هناك متنفساً لذلك الغضب بصب جام الغضب واللعنات على هؤلاء النسوة بطريقة يندي لها الجبين. من منا لايذكر المنشورات التي وزعت والتي تحمل أسمائهن وأسماء عائلاتهن وأرقام هواتفهن وتصفهن بالفاسقات وبالمؤامرة الإيرانية العلمانية. وانتشر الحديث في المجالس كالنار في الهشيم وتم تشويه محاولة عفوية جريئة فغدت شر مستطير وحديث المدينة. في ٩ نوفمبر ١٩٩٠م أصدر الشيخ بن باز (رحمه الله) المفتي العام فتوى تحرم قيادة المرأة للسيارة. وفي يوم ١١ نوفمبر ١٩٩٠ م صدر بيان من وزارة الداخلية الموجب بفتوى الشيخ بن باز يمنع النساء من القيادة وأي امرأة تخالف هذا النظام سيتم معاقبتها. تم إيقاف جميع قائدات السيارات من بعدها عن العمل لمدة سنتين وثمانية أشهر ومنعهن من السفر لمدة عشرة اشهر.

ظل الموضوع من التابوهات الإجتماعية التي لا يتجرأ أحداً على نقاشها، حتى تقدم عضو مجلس الشورى الدكتور محمد آل زلفة في يوم ٢٢ مايو ٢٠٠٥ بمشروع يتضمن ١٨ توصية لمنح المرأة حق قيادة السيارة. في اليوم التالي أعلن مجلس الشورى رفضه مناقشة المشروع وإحالته لهيئة كبار العلماء. وفي يوم ٢٥ مايو بدأت حملة شعواء تطالب بمعاقبة د. آل زلفة وفصله من المجلس. في يوم ١ يونيو ٢٠٠٥ صرح وزير الداخلية السابق الأمير نايف (رحمه الله) بأن “قيادة المرأة للسيارة شأن اجتماعي والجدل حول ذلك ليس له معنى”. وفي يوم ٥ يونيو ٢٠٠٥ تسربت أخبار أن هيئة كبار العلماء ستبحث قيادة المرأة للسيارة. وفي ٢٦ يونيو ٢٠٠٥ أعلنت جمعية حقوق الإنسان أنها تدرس طلباً تقدم به مجموعة من المواطنين لرفع الحظر. في ١٣ فبراير ٢٠٠٦ رفض مجلس الشورى بشكل نهائي مناقشة المشروع الذي تقدم به د. آل زلفة. في يوم ٢٣ سبتمبر ٢٠٠٧ وبمناسبة ذكرى اليوم الوطني رفع ١١٠٠ من المواطنين خطاب لخادم الحرمين الشريفين يطالب بحق المرأة بالقيادة. وفي يوم ٤ يناير ٢٠١١ تقدم ١١٧ من الكتاب والأكاديميين بخطاب موجه لرئيس مجلس الشورى يطالب بمنح النساء رخص للقيادة. لا نعرف حتى اليوم مصير هذه الخطابات.

في ٣ مايو ٢٠١١ أعلنت مجموعة من السعوديات عن اطلاق مبادرة (سأقود سيارتي بنفسي) التي تدعو النساء الحاصلات على رخص قيادة دولية بممارسة هذا الحق عند الحاجة، مستندة على عدم وجود نص في نظام المرور يمنع المرأة من القيادة، وعلى إختلاف العلماء في موضوع التحريم.

و بالرغم من تصريح المسؤولين للإعلام الداخلى و الخارجي بأن القضية اجتماعية و لعدم وجود نظام صريح  يمنع القيادة مثل ما صرح المدير العام لمرور جدة بذلك، إلا ان ما يحدث على أرض الواقع مغاير تماماً للتصريحات حيث يتم القبض على قائدات السيارات و إجبارهن على توقيع تعهدات مع أولياء أمورهن بعدم القيادة. سجنت امرأة واحدة عشرة أيام بدون محاكمة أو قضية و تم إحالة امرأتين للقضاء الشرعي ليحكم على إحداهن بالجلد عشر جلدات استناداً على تعميم نسخته أنظمة الحكم و فتوى ويتم ايقاف الحكم بأمر ملكي لتنتهي القضية بتسجيل واقعه جنائية عليها والجناية (قيادة سيارة)، بينما أحيلت قضية الأخرى من المحكمة إلى لجنة خاصة في وزارة الداخلية للبت فيها.

عام كامل منذ اطلاق المبادرة، قادت خلاله المئات من السيدات و أوقفت العشرات منهن و طالبن عبر جميع الوسائل بالبت في القضية، مع ذلك لم يصدر أي بيان رسمي عن السلطات السعودية و لم يصدر أي قانون يمنع القيادة بشكل صريح، و لم تتخذ أي اجراءات لتسمح لهذا المجتمع بإتخاذ القرار أو الاعتياد عليه، فلم يتم السماح للنساء بالحصول على رخص القيادة، ولم يتم فتح مدارس لتعليم القيادة، ولم يتم البت في الدعاوى المرفوعة ضد الإدارة العامة للمرور. ولم تقم السلطات بأي مجهود يذكر تجاه توفير بدائل نقل آمنة واقتصادية للنساء أو من خلال تعويض الأسر ببدل مواصلات يتناسب وما تصرفه المرأة أو رب الأسرة على رسوم تأشيرة واستقدام السائق الخاص أو تعويض الأسر المتضررة من هروب السائق. أو بدل مواصلات يتناسب وما تتحمله المرأة والأسرة من مصاريف استخدام سائق بالأجرة.

إن صدور القرار الملكي في يوم ٢٥ سبتمبر ٢٠١١ بإشراك النساء في الحياة السياسية يجعل حقاً أساسياً كحق حرية التنقل ملحاً وعاجلاً. فكيف يوثق في امرأة لتشارك في قيادة وطن، ولا يوثق فيها  لتقود سيارة!

نشرته صحيفة الحياة اللندنية

الأربعاء ٢٠ يونيو ٢٠١٢