“My life be­hind the veil” – the Saudi woman who dared to drive


It’s ironic and rather won­der­ful that to­day as I ar­rive to in­ter­view one of the most im­por­tant and rev­ered ag­i­ta­tors in the world, it is Manal alSharif her­self be­hind the wheel of her brand new shiny black Mazda who picks me up from Warn­er­vale train sta­tion on NSW’s Cen­tral Coast. Fight­ing for the right to drive is Manal’s rai­son d’être and it has cost the 38-year-old mother-of-two dearly.

Manal lost her job, her house, her liveli­hood and fled her home­land, leav­ing be­hind the love of her life,>>

son Aboudi, her par­ents and friends. But as we mo­tor over Tug­gerah Lake to her new favourite spot, the beaches around No­rah Head, Manal grap­pling with the con­trols of her rather swish fam­ily car, it be­comes clear there was noth­ing else this in­tel­li­gent, vi­va­cious, deep-think­ing, proud Saudi Ara­bian woman could do.

In her own coun­try, Manal is a pariah to the fiercely con­ser­va­tive sta­tus quo, who have called for her to be killed, beaten, locked up and even in­cited men to rape her; and an in­spir­ing role model to others who hang on her ev­ery word and wish they could emu­late her courage.

To the world out­side the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia – the US, Europe, Scan­di­navia, and soon, no doubt, in Aus­tralia – she’s one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial people in the world (as named by Time mag­a­zine in 2012); a trail­blazer, no­ble dis­si­dent, a cham­pion for women’s rights and key player in a move for change at the very heart of Is­lam, in the daily life of women and girls trapped be­hind the veil.

It seems bizarre this de­ter­mined trou­ble­maker from the Is­lamic world should have ended up liv­ing in Aus­tralia with her Brazil­ian hus­band and youngest son, who is two years old. How she got here is an ex­tra­or­di­nary tale of the power of the hu­man spirit cou­pled with the sort of prag­matic ex­pe­di­ency Manal has had to master in or­der to stay alive.

Right to drive

On Thurs­day May 19, 2011, Manal made a bold and dan­ger­ous stand that would change her life for ever. It might seem as­ton­ish­ing that such a sim­ple thing, taken for granted as part of ev­ery­day life for most women – and men – around the world, could be con­sid­ered so con­tro­ver­sial and bring such ex­treme reper­cus­sions.

Manal, a divorcee work­ing in the highly prized in­for­ma­tion se­cu­rity field for Saudi Ara­bia’s most pres­ti­gious com­pany, climbed be­hind the wheel of her pur­ple Cadil­lac SRX. Then, with fel­low ac­tivist Wa­jeha by her side video­ing the jour­ney on her phone, she put her keys in the ig­ni­tion, pulled her black hi­jab scarf tight around her face so no hair was show­ing, donned big black sun­glasses and put her foot on the gas.

Manal drove along Cor­niche Street in her then home­town of Khobar and as she drove she chat­ted calmly for the video. She wasn’t be­rat­ing, she wasn’t preach­ing, she wasn’t blam­ing, she was sim­ply ar­tic­u­lat­ing the prac­ti­cal rea­sons why women should be al­lowed to drive in the King­dom.

Ban­ning women from driv­ing was op­pres­sive, dam­ag­ing and made no log­i­cal sense. It put women at risk of ha­rass­ment and at­tack from male driv­ers, the taxis women were forced to take were crip­plingly ex­pen­sive and in times of ex­treme ur­gency, such as a hus­band, par­ent or child need­ing to be taken for im­me­di­ate med­i­cal care, hu­man life was put in dan­ger. “That day, I felt I was driv­ing for all Saudi women,” says Manal.

What was even more ex­tra­or­di­nary about Manal’s ac­tions, which caused up­roar in her own land, was that she wasn’t ac­tu­ally break­ing the law. “There are no spe­cific statutes or lines in the traf­fic code that for­bid women from driv­ing,” she ex­plains. “I was disobey­ing the ‘orf’, the cus­tom,” says Manal, who was de­lighted to have com­pleted her drive with­out be­ing stopped or ar­rested.

The stunt was to try to per­suade fe­male driv­ers to take to the streets a month later on June 17 in a Saudi-wide show of strength, part of the Women2Drive move­ment, which Manal was spear­head­ing on Face­book and Twit­ter. When the group posted the video on YouTube, it hit the num­ber one spot in Saudi Ara­bia and jumped to one of the top videos in the world, with more than 700,000 view­ings.

But con­dem­na­tion came thick and fast and threats were made that women who dared to drive would be pun­ished and shamed; so-called “man-wolves” would drag them from their cars, whip them with their iqals

– the cir­cle of rope used to keep a man’s head­scarf in place – and po­ten­tially rape them.

Soon Manal re­alised her fol­low­ers were los­ing their nerve. She needed to prove that these “man-wolves” didn’t re­ally ex­ist, and that even if fe­male driv­ers were ar­rested they would sim­ply have to sign a state­ment saying they wouldn’t do it again and be re­leased. And so, with her younger brother, Muham­mad, by her side, Manal climbed into the driv­ing seat once more, de­lib­er­ately driv­ing past the traf­fic po­lice, and this time she was pulled over.

After many te­dious hours at the po­lice sta­tion, Manal was even­tu­ally re­leased with a ticket for “driv­ing while fe­male”.

But then, at 2am, she was wo­ken at home in the sort of mid­dleof-the-night ar­rest de­signed to ter­rorise. “Aboudi was asleep and my brother was there with his wife and son, and when the se­cret po­lice come to your house in the mid­dle of the night, it’s not a good sign in Saudi Ara­bia,” Manal says. She was forced to leave her son and was thrown into prison.

The nine days she spent locked in­side the filthy women’s jail retch­ing on the stench of hu­man ex­cre­ment and urine, her cell crawl­ing with thou­sands of cock­roaches, and with scant ac­cess to le­gal coun­sel, were the most ter­ri­fy­ing of her life.

“I thought I would dis­ap­pear,” says Manal. And when she fi­nally came out – the re­sult of her fa­ther plead­ing di­rectly with the King – ev­ery­thing had changed.

Child­hood scars

Manal was born on April 25, 1979, in the holy city of Mecca. It’s the spir­i­tual home of Is­lam and as such one of the strictest en­vi­ron­ments in the world for Mus­lim women, es­pe­cially after the siege of the Grand Mosque in 1979, when re­li­gious fa­nat­ics seized the city. “My gen­er­a­tion was brain­washed,” says Manal.

At the very least, women – and girls who have started men­stru­at­ing – were re­quired to wear a black abaya (a full-length over-the-head cloak worn with a head­scarf) when out, at best the niqab, with just a nar­row open­ing for their eyes. “By the early 1990s, the full-face niqab was im­posed on all fe­male stu­dents,” adds Manal. “It was the most strin­gent form. While the tra­di­tional niqab left a slit for the eyes, we were now sup­posed to lower our head scarves to block out this open­ing en­tirely. The full-face cov­er­ing made me al­most blind.”

If a woman wore per­fume she would be branded a se­duc­tress, and if at­tacked, it was her fault for be­guil­ing the per­pe­tra­tor. “I was al­ways ques­tion­ing why God gave me a face, eyes, nose and a mouth and then he asked me to cover it,” Manal tells me, still in­cred­u­lous at her coun­try’s despotic at­ti­tude to the veil.

“Why do I have to be al­ways feel­ing as if I’m an ob­ject of se­duc­tion? I have to be in­vis­i­ble, I have to walk next to the wall. I don’t talk to men or leave the house. Why did you cre­ate me, just to be for one man who is my hus­band? Why does he get to live a very nor­mal life, while I can’t?”

Manal’s mother was alone and forced to give birth to her on the floor of their cramped apart­ment be­cause her hus­band was out when she went into labour. Saudi rules do not al­low women to be ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal with­out a male guardian or “mahram” in at­ten­dance; there are no ex­emp­tions.

While her chil­dren were raised to be de­vout, her mother was de­ter­mined they would all – both her son and her two daugh­ters – re­ceive the ed­u­ca­tion she and her hus­band were de­nied.

She also didn’t want Manal and her sis­ter to marry be­fore they had com­pleted univer­sity, and ac­tively turned down suit­ors on their be­half.

While ap­pre­cia­tive of these con­ces­sions, Manal con­fesses she had “a ter­ri­ble child­hood”. She was reg­u­larly beaten by her fa­ther, who kept a cane hang­ing on the wall which he used on all of his chil­dren, sav­ing his fists for his wife. She is still at a loss to ex­plain the causes for the beat­ings, but do­mes­tic abuse was not an of­fence un­der Saudi law.

“I con­sid­ered [fa­ther] Abouya’s bam­boo cane the sixth per­son in our home. The cane was a fa­mil­iar sight in al­most any house in Mecca; very few of my friends were for­tu­nate enough not to know its sting,” says Manal.

In ad­di­tion, Manal’s mother would beat her kids with her bare hands, slap­ping and pinch­ing their thighs and, when they ran away, throw­ing

“I con­sid­ered the bam­boo cane the sixth per­son in our home.”

any­thing, even sharp scis­sors, to in­flict pain. “I have two scars on my fore­head and a third un­der my left eye that will for­ever re­mind me of my mother’s fu­ri­ous beat­ings,” she says.

The scars are still vis­i­ble and Manal says are a valu­able re­minder of her past. “I made a prom­ise to my­self that my kids would not live the same child­hood. They will al­ways be en­cour­aged, they will al­ways be cel­e­brated, they will al­ways be loved and em­braced,” she says.

The most hor­rific mem­ory from Manal’s child­hood came at age eight, when her fa­ther or­gan­ised for two men – a lo­cal bar­ber and his son – and a woman to come to their home and cir­cum­cise his daugh­ters. The in­tent was to pre­vent his girls from “de­viant be­hav­iour”. She talks about that ter­ri­ble day for the first time in her just pub­lished ground­break­ing mem­oir Dar­ing to Drive. And she tells me it’s a day that still haunts her. “I was just ter­ri­fied.”

In one swift mo­tion the bar­ber’s son grabbed me by my shoul­ders, the woman opened my legs and I be­gan to cry and scream hys­ter­i­cally… The ‘op­er­a­tion’ was per­formed in a few snips with a sin­gle pair of scis­sors and no anaes­thetic. The blood flowed red and wet down my legs… I bled for three days.

“Mum brought it up once,” Manal muses as she stares at a group of Aussie teenagers who have gath­ered with their surf­boards by the beach we are sit­ting by. “She said that she was cir­cum­cised her­self and hers was worse, they cut the labia. She re­mem­bers it vividly and was ter­ri­fied.

“It’s so sad that the mother who en­dured this had to put her daugh­ters through the same, be­cause of the shame and so­ci­ety.”

The cir­cum­ci­sion left Manal de­formed, which she says made her feel “less than other girls”, and be­fore her first wed­ding she vol­un­tar­ily had cos­metic surgery. “I told my ex-hus­band I am not go­ing to marry with­out do­ing some­thing to re­store that area.” The pro­ce­dure was “so painful” but her mum went with her and was “very sup­port­ive”, she adds.

Rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion

Manal turned into a bril­liant stu­dent, study­ing hard and ea­ger to learn. But school life was strict and riven with re­li­gious dogma, which ul­ti­mately rad­i­calised her. At 13, she trans­formed “from a mod­er­ately ob­ser­vant Mus­lim into a rad­i­cal Is­lamist”.

In an at­tempt to save her brother from hell­fire, she burned his pop mu­sic cas­settes and filled her own leisure time pre­par­ing her­self for death, vow­ing to change “the evil” around her.

“I think my child­hood came in a time when there were re­li­gious fa­nat­ics go­ing around Saudi Ara­bia,” she tells me. “My girl­friends’ daugh­ters now, they don’t cover their faces and there’s no beat­ing in the schools. So at least now I feel this gen­er­a­tion will not go through the things we went through when we were kids.”

Manal started to think for her­self when she went to univer­sity in Jed­dah to study com­puter sci­ence. Life in this city was much more lib­eral than in Mecca and the in­ter­net opened up her world. “That changed ev­ery­thing,” says Manal. “The first thing I started reading about was the veil­ing. I met girl­friends in col­lege who didn’t veil and that re­ally trau­ma­tised me. But in­stead of preach­ing at them, I started reading and my God, I dis­cov­ered all these other opin­ions. Some even said that the hi­jab [the head­scarf] is not re­quired!”

That was it, Manal was be­com­ing a free spirit. When, after a long bat­tle, she scored a job at Aramco, the world’s largest oil com­pany, as the only Saudi woman in the in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy se­cu­rity depart­ment, her jour­ney be­gan. En­ter­ing the en­closed Aramco com­pound, a mini-city with of­fices, hous­ing, parks, shops and ameni­ties, Manal got a glimpse of West­ern life, and she liked it.

But Manal still faced end­less bar­ri­ers. Find­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion was pure farce, as she was banned from liv­ing on the com­pound as a sin­gle Saudi woman and also from hir­ing a ho­tel room.

Here she met her first hus­band, and their son, Aboudi, was born. She says the mar­riage was abu­sive and ended in di­vorce. Manal, tired of the reg­u­lar beat­ings she re­ceived, man­aged to re­tain cus­tody of her son and con­tin­ued to en­joy work.

Then, on a work ex­change trip to New Hamp­shire in the US, Manal fi­nally – at the age of 30 – learned to drive and re­alised what free­dom was all about. Re­turn­ing to Saudi Ara­bia, she was de­ter­mined to change the lives of her fel­low women and so joined the Women2Drive cam­paign.

The ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice

Fol­low­ing her time in jail, Manal re­turned to work, but her em­ploy­ers were not happy. The Women2Drive day went ahead, but Manal couldn’t take part and even­tu­ally had to re­sign from the job she loved so much. “I gave away the job be­cause I was pres­sured to stay quiet. I’d ac­cepted

the Va­clav Havel Prize for Cre­ative Dis­sent [along­side Myan­mar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Chi­nese artist Ai Weiwei] and wanted to fly to Oslo to re­ceive it. They wouldn’t al­low me to give the speech – and it re­ally opened the doors for me, that speech. So I said, ‘I quit.’ I quit and I flew.”

Her 17-minute speech in English went vi­ral on YouTube and Manal was lauded around the world. But when she re­turned to Saudi Ara­bia, she faced no job, no home and daily death threats. “I knew I had no choice but to leave,” she sighs.

Manal had started a “nod­ding ac­quain­tance” with a fel­low Aramco worker, a Brazil­ian called Rafael, and on one of their walks he de­clared his love. Rafael’s con­tract was fin­ish­ing and he asked Manal to go with him to Dubai.

“I could not go there with­out be­ing his wife,” says Manal. But nei­ther the Saudi nor the Emi­rati au­thor­i­ties would al­low the cou­ple to marry, so even­tu­ally Rafael took Manal to Brazil to meet his fam­ily. He qui­etly con­verted to Is­lam, and they were mar­ried and moved to Dubai.

But Manal’s ex-hus­band would not al­low Aboudi to live with his mother in Dubai. Even though Manal had le­gal cus­tody, it was still her for­mer hus­band’s right to pre­vent his son from leav­ing the coun­try.

“I took my ex-hus­band to court for two years and I lost. And now Aboudi doesn’t even live with his dad. He lives with his grandma, my ex-hus­band’s mother,” says Manal, sad and ex­as­per­ated. “This is very dif­fi­cult for both of us. So many times I cry,” she tells me with tears in her eyes.

When she was in Dubai, Manal flew reg­u­larly to see Aboudi and then she be­came preg­nant, and a few months ago Manal, Rafael and their son Daniel, now two years old, ar­rived to make a new life in Aus­tralia. But their life is in limbo. Rafael has work through his in­ter­na­tional em­ploy­ers and Manal is con­sumed with hu­man rights work, but they can­not unite their fam­ily. Their mar­riage is not ac­cepted in Saudi Ara­bia, so while Manal can re­turn, it would be with­out Rafael and Daniel. And Aboudi is in turn kept in Saudi Ara­bia by his fa­ther who doesn’t even live with him.

I ask her how she ex­plains her life as an ac­tivist to Aboudi.

“It’s dif­fi­cult. Right now we just miss each other. Be­cause ev­ery­thing in Saudi is blocked, we talk to each other on ‘Tal­kee’ [a free chat­line ser­vice]. You cre­ate a chat room, and our room is al­ways called ‘Miss You’. I think Aboudi is the first love in my life. I’ve never loved any­thing, any­one, like Aboudi. He keeps me go­ing.

“I have re­grets, of course. I will al­ways won­der what if I stayed in Aramco and was anony­mous. When Mum passed away, I couldn’t take Daniel to see her [be­fore she died]. That was very painful.”

Manal’s re­la­tion­ship with her faith is equally com­plex. “To­day I would call my­self a lib­eral Mus­lim. Aboudi is raised Mus­lim, but Daniel I would like to choose. Aboudi has no choice be­cause he’s in Saudi Ara­bia.”

And would she like to even­tu­ally bring him to Aus­tralia? “No, I’d like to live in Saudi Ara­bia. It’s my home­land. I don’t like it when people say hor­ri­ble things about Saudi Ara­bia. Not all Saudis are like this, there are good Saudis too, very ed­u­cated, gen­er­ous and gen­uine people. But most of my girl­friends, when they have the chance, they leave be­cause they say, ‘I don’t have the en­ergy to go through this has­sle ev­ery day of my life.’

“I think I do be­cause that’s how you cre­ate change. My ideal would be to go back to Saudi with my hus­band and son and cre­ate change rather than be­ing away and hop­ing that change can hap­pen.”

“My kids will not live the same child­hood. They will be loved.”

Manal wore the tra­di­tional hi­jab for our photo shoot, but at home wears jeans and T-shirts.

From left: Manal with el­der sis­ter Muna. A trau­ma­tised Manal in the jal­abiya she was wear­ing on the day of her cir­cum­ci­sion. “I re­mem­ber ev­ery de­tail,” she says. Manal and brother Muham­mad with their par­ents.

ABOVE: With her son, Aboudi, the love of her life. RIGHT: Manal and her se­cond hus­band, Rafael, cradling their son, Daniel.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to tell my story. It’s funny that it took driv­ing a car for people to be in­ter­ested,” says Manal.

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