Defying Saudi culture, Manal Al Sharif drove a vehicle last year and posted her experience online in an attempt to influence a change in women’s rights in the ultra-conservative country.
Soft-spoken and diminutive, Manal Al Sharif is difficult to imagine raising the ire of Saudi Arabia’s conservative government and clerics. But the leader of a campaign pushing for women to drive has provoked conservatives like no other.
With a single YouTube video of her behind the wheel, the 32-year-old IT security consultant ignited a women’s rights movement within Saudi society. Now she is suing the country’s transport authority for refusing to grant her a driving licence.
Al Sharif was arrested for driving last May and leading the Women2Drive campaign, which called on Saudi women with foreign driver’s licences to defy the driving ban on June 17, 2011. After transport officials rejected her licence application, Al Sharif filed an objection with the General Directorate of Traffic in Riyadh. When she got no response, she filed suit in November.
“Because they reacted so harshly when we wanted to drive, we used legal channels,” she says. Four more women have lodged complaints against the authority, according to Al Sharif. Another 10 say they plan to apply for licences in Jeddah. The hope is to have 1,000 lawsuits filed by 2013.
“We’ve been trying to get an official response,” Al Sharif says. “We just want a yes or a no – but not to be ignored.”
While it is not illegal for women to drive, religious edicts are interpreted as a ban on female drivers. These edicts have a broad scope: women cannot work, travel or open bank accounts without the approval of a male guardian. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive.
The last major protest was in 1990 when dozens of women were arrested for circling Riyadh in their cars. The government jailed them for one day and confiscated their passports. Many lost their jobs.
Al Sharif maintains that since then officials have said the issue of female drivers is a social decision and not one for the authorities. Her response: “Well, if it’s social, we’ll drive.”
Al Sharif posted a video of herself driving around Al Khobar in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province last year. (It’s common for women in rural areas to drive, as a result of isolation and necessity.) When the video was removed from YouTube four days later, it had been viewed more than 700,000 times. It has since been reposted with English subtitles.
A few days later, on May 21, Al Sharif got behind the wheel with her brother. Though the traffic police pulled her over, it was the religious police, the mutaween, who accused her of violating a cultural standard.
The mutaween roam the streets and malls enforcing Wahhabi Islam. Armed with thin wooden canes, they have a wide scope, from reprimanding teenagers who are flirting to ensuring women are fully covered to ordering shops to close during prayer times.
Al Sharif refused to sign a pledge not to drive again. She was arrested without charge later the same day at home.
“It’s always scary here, because they could take you at any time,” she says. “Later on I received threats from the government, telling me to stay in the house, that my family were accountable for anything I say, but I think someone should speak out. My family are concerned for my safety and believe in me, they tell me to be careful, but have never asked me to stop.”
When she was released nine days later, the ban on women driving had become a major media focus. After her arrest, and again when she announced her lawsuit, Al Sharif says she received threats of rape, violence and death, and was targeted by smear campaigns trying to discredit her morality. But she says there was a new attitude among women.
“Women tell me that they are different before and after I was put in jail. It was a wake-up call,” says Al Sharif, who is divorced and has a 6-year-old son.
In recent months, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has granted women greater rights, allowing them to vote and run for local municipal elections by 2015. In January, the king replaced the hard-line chief of the mutaween with a more liberal cleric who has previously encouraged greater women’s rights.
“I’ve heard a lot on the news that we rocked the boat so hard last year on basic rights, that they offered this as a way to calm things down,” says Al Sharif. “It’s good women can vote five years from now. They acknowledge we’re citizens. But I still can’t do anything without a male giving me permission.”