“They threatened to rape and kill me on the street. But I have to speak up.”
Can you imagine living in a country where you’re not allowed to drive because you’re a woman? Saudi Arabian equality campaigner Manal al-Sharif, 34, thinks it’s madness too, and shot to worldwide fame in 2011 when she posted a defiant video of herself driving her car on YouTube. What happened next? Jail, vilification and personal crisis – but Manal is not giving up hope for a fairer Saudi society. By Kerry Potter
I remember the moment when I thought, ‘Oh god, what have I got myself into?’ It was my second day in jail in May 2011 – my ‘crime’ was driving my car and encouraging other women to do the same. I’d been allowed to call my family, who told me that my 5-year-old son – Abdullah or Aboody for short – had been hospitalized with a high fever. Aboody was in hospital for the first time and I was not by his side. That was when the tears came. What’s more, my elderly mother had taken an 18 hour bus journey across the country to my home when she’d heard what had happened, and my brother, who I’d asked to come in the car while I was driving, had been taken away and I didn’t know what would happen to him. I was in a filthy, overcrowded cell – I’d spent my first night sitting on the floor as there were no free beds. The place was full of scared women. Many of them were foreign workers who didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t know why they were there, and some had their young children with them. These poor children had nowhere to play, no toys, and they didn’t see sunshine. Other prisoners were taking out their frustrations on them – screaming at them, slapping them, twisting their ears. It was horrifying. I realized I had got myself into so much trouble. I’d been put in jail with no trial and might never see my family again. I was terrified, but I was also very, very angry.
In just 24 hours 800,000 people saw the “Saudi Girl Driving” YouTube video of me driving my car. If you ask anyone across the world about Saudi Arabia, the one thing they know is that women are not allowed to drive. My Right2Drive protest – as part of my activism for equal rights campaign group Right To Dignity – came about after one very frustrating evening when I had to go to a clinic and couldn’t get home afterwards. It was 9pm, no one I knew could give me a lift and I couldn’t get hold of a driver on the phone. It’s not socially acceptable in Saudi Arabia for women to walk the streets alone, but I had no choice as I had to find a taxi. As I was such an easy target, I was harassed by the driver of every single passing car. They beeped at me, or wound down their windows and shouted at me. One man even followed me for 15 minutes, telling me to get into his car. He only drove off after I threw a rock at the car and broke a window. I was so scared. I ended up crying in anger on the street, thinking, this
As a child and teenager growing up in Mecca, I was an [Islamic] extremist but it didn’t come from my family, it came from school. We had intensive extremism teaching from visiting preachers and I just naively believed whatever I was told. So many things were ‘haram’, which means banned in Islam: TV, music, books, drawing, magazines, even plucking your eyebrows. I gave my family a hard time: I would turn off the TV while they were watching it and I would put my younger brother’s beloved pop music cassettes in the oven to destroy them. I tried very hard to be a good Muslim but it was difficult to follow so many rules. It was like being in a horrible relationship where the man keeps trying to change you: you try hard to please him, but he’s never happy and you’re not happy either.
I began to question my beliefs in 2000 when I got access to the internet as a computer science student – it was the first time I’d ever got a perspective on the world which didn’t come from the government. I could read things I’d never been allowed to read, I could chat to people in other countries. Then when 9/11 happened, I felt like I’d put a mirror up to my face, seen myself properly for the first time and realized how ugly I was. The jihadists – who I’d been taught to view as heroes – had killed innocent civilians and used religion to justify their violence. I knew it wasn’t right.
I realized how small the box I lived in was once I’d stepped out of it. Daily life in Saudi is so frustrating for women. When a man turns 18, he is an adult, but a woman remains a minor until the day she dies. I need my dad’s permission to do anything: to rent a property, to get a passport, to leave the country. Every time I travel, a government department sends my father a text to tell him where I’m going. Women can’t stay in hotel rooms on their own, nor can they work in public places. So that means I have to face the embarrassment of buying my bras and knickers from men, as women can’t work in shops. On graduating I got a job with the oil company Aramco, but I wasn’t allowed to live in their compound – only foreign female workers could live there alongside men, and I wasn’t allowed to use the company buses to travel to work, as men used them. And of course women don’t drive. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have pedestrian cities: you can’t walk anywhere without being harassed and there’s no public transport. So you have to use private drivers or taxis – some women spend two-thirds of their salaries on drivers just so they can work. In 2009 my company sent me to work in Boston for a year. When I arrived I could pick up my papers, hire and drive a car, stay in a hotel, rent an apartment, pick up furniture, all by myself. It was amazing. I saw a glimpse of normal life, of how things could be, if I we didn’t have to go through this agony every day.
I was extremely relieved to be released from jail after 9 days (my brother was freed after 24 hours), following a royal pardon from King Abdullah. They said they were ‘pinching my ear’ to make sure I didn’t do it again. I can’t describe how good it felt to hug Aboody again, but the first thing I had to do before I could touch anyone was take two showers and scrub my body to get rid of the filth. My action sends a simple message: “I will not be treated like a minor for my whole life.” We Saudi women need to be courageous and take action with these small things and then take action with the bigger things: it’s the ripple effect. We need to start questioning things – we’ve always been told we can’t do things because God said so. But I had no idea my action would offend so many people in my country. I couldn’t
I was put under so pressure at work – they didn’t like my campaigning– that 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 could not 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. It doesn’t consider what’s best for the children. I could have stayed, struggled and been resentful but I didn’t want that. He lives with his grandmother, a one hour flight from me, and I go and see him every weekend. It’s very painful for me and I could just sit and cry about it, but I’m trying to take action, I’m trying to push for equal rights for Saudi women. If my son comes to me in 20 years time and asks if I tried to do anything about it, at least I can say, ‘I tried my best, I fought’.
My campaign group use social media to affect change – I realized technology could help the cause as Saudis are huge YouTube viewers and tweeters. We use it to generate media attention, create news, embarrass the government. Driving is just part of it – that’s to annoy the authorities and bring attention our way. Our motto is ‘full citizenship’ and we push and push for this. For example, a woman can be divorced by her husband without her even knowing and her kids taken straight away. There are lots of injustices like this we are trying to change. We are helping the mother of Lama Al-Ghamdi [the 5-year-old Saudi girl allegedly beaten and tortured to death by her Islamist preacher father last year. Reports suggest he was merely ordered to pay a ‘blood money’ fine to his ex-wife, rather than stand trial for murder]. We’ve assigned an attorney to her – she didn’t have one, while the father had three. We’re calling for a law to criminalise domestic violence. We fish for individual cases like this and bring media attention to them in order to create change. All the things that have happened in Saudi Arabia in the last two years – women driving every week (we have a second anniversary mass drive planned for June 17 this year); the demonstrations; the conversations that are now being had – it’s been amazing. A woman who was caught driving recently said she was inspired by me and I thought, Yes! I write a weekly newspaper column that’s helping girls to challenge social taboos – so many girls contact me to thank me. It used to be hard to meet like-minded people as we can’t really meet up in person – a gathering of more than four people would be considered illegal. We don’t have social lives, so we’re eager to meet online – social media has been empowering for us. You may think you’re alone in fighting, but actually there are people 100 per cent behind you. Now I live in Dubai, it’s easier – I can sit together with my fellow activists and have meetings. I was surprised to realize how much global reach our campaigns have had – I was so shocked to be invited to address the UN in Washington. In my country I am treated like a criminal and disrespected, but overseas people tell me they are inspired by me.
We have reached the point when there is no going back now. But change won’t happen right away – we haven’t reached boiling point yet, but I think in 10 years we will. So we just have to be patient. More and more women are going abroad, seeing how life can be, and coming back, and they will be the agents of change. Many years ago in Britain, women fought really hard for you to live the way you do today, and that is what we’re trying to do for women in Saudi Arabia. Never take your freedoms for granted. I can’t change my reality right now, but I can affect what happens for the women who come after me.