Manal Al-Sharif, the 33-year old Saudi woman who sparked a nationwide demonstration over the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia last June, has unwittingly become the face of the women’s driving movement.
She was arrested and jailed, lost a plum job at Aramco and the house that came with the job. Although she frequently faces death threats, nothing has stopped Al-Sharif from realizing the goal of many Saudi women: to have the right to drive a car.
While there is no written law prohibiting women from driving, the government makes it impossible for women to drive. Saudi Arabia does not issue drivers licenses to women, and the law says all drivers must have locally issued licenses. Most religious authorities say that women driving is “haram” -- forbidden. Every woman, regardless of age, must also have a male guardian, and only 21 percent of Saudi women are in the workforce.
Al-Sharif is the lead advocate of the Internet campaign “My Right to Dignity” launched last year along with a petition to King Abdullah, demanding the right to drive. She was briefly arrested and promised that she would not attempt to drive again.
Her work has earned Sharif a spot on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011 and the Forbes list of Women Who (Briefly) Rocked in the same year. In 2012, The Daily Beast named her one of the Fearless Women of the Year, and Time magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2012. She was also one of the three people awarded the first annual Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
In an interview with The Media Line, the activist says she does not want to overthrow the Saudi regime, but she will not give up her fight.
TML: How is the petition this time different from all the previous ones?
MAS: The petition launched by the My Right to Dignity Campaign, also known as “Women2Drive,” not only asks the King and the government to allow women to enjoy their right to drive like women all over the world, but also demands the protection of women drivers so that they are not sued or harassed until they are issued Saudi driving licenses. The petition asks to allow women to get driving licenses in nearby countries and then allow them to drive here. The petition also seeks compensation for women and their families who paid a price for participating in the driving campaign and urges the development of a robust public transport system. It also asks the king to open driving schools in Saudi Arabia that can issue licenses to women. It thanks the king for giving women the right to vote in municipal elections starting in 2015.
TML: How has the response to the petition been so far? How many have signed?
MAS: In just two weeks, we have had over 1,000 signatures on the petition. The ‘Women2Drive’ Twitter account has over 19,000 followers.
TML: How has your prominence in Saudi Arabia and high name recognition affected your life?
MAS: While there has been harassment from the police, there has also been much support, especially from the youth. None of my articles are published in the newspapers, my tweets are analyzed, and my religious inclinations are questioned. But I always knew there was a price to pay for bringing about any change.
TML: Since there is no actual law against women driving, wouldn't one course of action be just to encourage women to drive as long as they have an international license?
MAS: This is exactly what we are doing. We are urging women to go to the traffic departments and apply for licenses in an effort to show that we are serious about driving.
TML: How do you answer those who say that the time is not right for women to drive or that it is dangerous for women to drive alone? Even a woman in a car with her driver or guardian is not safe from the men on the road, who chase cars, make indecent gestures, block the woman’s car, etc. Wouldn't the situation be worse if the woman is driving all alone?
MAS: These are the same people who say that ours is a secure country. So when they say it is not safe for women to drive, they are contradicting themselves. Why not introduce laws to protect women? These people are punishing women by restricting them instead of punishing men who harass women. This shows they are really stupid people.
TML: Since there is no explicit law banning women from driving, what is proving to be the biggest impediment to women's driving?
MAS: The officials themselves. The authorities say it is up to society, but punish women who drive. They should leave it to society and open driving schools for women. The other obstacle is from women themselves. They fear the consequences of driving, of being punished. We must prove we are serious about this. Unless there are large numbers of women involved, there won’t be any action.
TML: Have you received death threats from a section of society after the Oslo Freedom Forum speech? Is that why you cancelled your US trip?
MAS: Yes, but that is just one of the reasons. There were other personal reasons. I had to leave my company house then and so was tied up with the moving process. Although my family and I have been subject to threats for a long time, this time it was really intense. So I was keeping a low profile for my family’s safety. But that does not mean I am stopping. I will be attending the UN Watch conference in Geneva soon, in addition to several other conferences in Italy, London and Canada.
TML: Some of the international media describe you as a “Saudi regime protester.” Would you agree with the description?
MAS: I totally disagree with that. The international media loves things like that. How can you be a regime protester when you are living in the same country? Even at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2012, I made it clear that my presence there was apolitical.
TML: What are your work plans after you lost your job as a computer scientist at Saudi Aramco?
MAS: I know that if I take up another job, it will be used to pressure me. It is time to reorganize my life now. And yes, leaving the country can be one of the options.
TML: Expatriate women who are dependent on their husbands are not allowed to work. And when they do, it is illegal. They need to hire a driver on the black market, who charge high fees. On the contrary, Saudi women can work legally and legally hire drivers. Do you think that expatriate women in Saudi Arabia are in a worse situation than their Saudi counterparts?
MAS: Expatriates, who make up 67 percent of the Saudi workforce, can hardly speak up for their rights. However, I feel expatriate women, who come to the Kingdom on work visas are in a better condition than Saudi women because they don’t need permission to work, are allowed to rent places, stay in hotels, etc.
TML: What are some of the other issues that you see yourself campaigning for?
MAS: The My Right to Dignity campaign focuses on a number of issues such as full citizenship for Saudi women, removal of guardianship laws, issues related to marriage, divorce and custody of children, setting a minimum age for marriage, and justice for children sexually abused by family members. Our most important task is to spread awareness about women’s rights, challenge taboos and the misinterpretation of sharia (Islamic religious) laws. We are largely succeeding in doing so as more and more women are finding out about their rights. The social media has a big role to play in this. Additionally, we are soon launching a YouTube channel for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.