Manal, driv­ing change for Saudi women


For Manal al Sharif, the self-de­scribed “ac­ci­den­tal ac­tivist” who spear­headed the cam­paign against the ban on fe­male driv­ers in Saudi Ara­bia, the time for women to be silent is over. Over­joyed by a royal de­cree last month al­low­ing women to fi­nally get be­hind the wheel in the king­dom, the elo­quent 38-year-old has now set her sights on the next bat­tle: abol­ish­ing the sys­tem of male guardian­ship.

“There is no time for us to be silent any­more,” Sharif said at the Frank­furt book fair, where she pre­sented the Ger­man trans­la­tion of her best­selling mem­oir Dar­ing to Drive. “Speak up, that is the only way to bring aware­ness and change things in Saudi Ara­bia.” The guardian­ship sys­tem re­quires Saudi women to get per­mis­sion from a des­ig­nated male fam­ily mem­ber on any­thing from travel to en­rolling at univer­sity. To show how se­ri­ous she is about her new cam­paign, Sharif rolls back her sleeve to re­veal a plas­tic blue bracelet that reads “I am my own guardian”, along­side a pic­ture of a car. “We are not mi­nors. We are ca­pa­ble of driv­ing our own lives,” she said, smil­ing at the pun.

In her book, Sharif charts her un­ex­pected jour­ney to re­bel­lion, cul­mi­nat­ing in her ar­rest after she filmed her­self driv­ing and posted the video on YouTube as part of the “Wo­man2Drive” cam­paign in 2011. Charged with “driv­ing while fe­male”, she spent nine days in jail in a case that sparked global up­roar.

With un­flinch­ing hon­esty, Sharif re­counts the hard­ships she faced grow­ing up in rel­a­tive poverty in Saudi Ara­bia’s holi­est city Mecca and the strug­gles she en­coun­tered later on as a di­vorced sin­gle mum. She cred­its her strict par­ents with push­ing her to ex­cel aca­dem­i­cally, but also ex­presses anger over the painful fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion she had to en­dure as a child and the do­mes­tic abuse she suf­fered at home, as well as at the hands of her first hus­band. She ad­mits to suc­cumb­ing to rad­i­cal­ism in her youth, even burn­ing her brother’s Back­street Boys cas­settes in what she calls her “ex­trem­ist days”, be­cause she be­lieved they were “haram” or for­bid­den un­der Is­lam. Her top grades even­tu­ally led her to be­come the first fe­male information se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist at the Saudi na­tional oil com­pany Aramco, where women are al­lowed to drive within the firm’s com­pound. But try­ing to get around out­side as a woman “who had no man in her life” was a con­stant bat­tle, forc­ing her to rely on her brother, col­leagues or taxi driv­ers.

One day, after fail­ing to find a ride after a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment, she de­cided to walk home alone. But a car fol­lowed her along the way, leav­ing her ter­ri­fied — and fed up. Em­bold­ened by the Arab Spring sweep­ing through the re­gion at the time, she de­cided enough was enough.

It was time to drive. “So it was really a per­sonal strug­gle,” Sharif said. “It was really from the fear of be­ing help­less in my own coun­try.” The mem­oir ends be­fore the ban is lifted, but Sharif is more than happy to update the epi­logue.

“I cried, I was so ex­cited,” she said about hear­ing the news of King Sal­man’s de­cree.

“The first thing I tweeted was ‘Saudi Ara­bia will never be the same again’, I call it the new Saudi Ara­bia for women,” said Sharif, a pro­lific so­cial me­dia user.

The de­cree comes into ef­fect next June, and Sharif is al­ready look­ing for­ward to get­ting in the driver’s seat, legally this time.

Her book is due to ap­pear in Ara­bic in Novem­ber, and Sharif — who di­vides her time be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Aus­tralia, where her new hus­band works — is brac­ing for the re­ac­tion in her home coun­try.

Men and women danced in the streets of Riyadh last month after they were al­lowed to cel­e­brate the coun­try’s na­tional day to­gether for the first time, and Sharif ex­cit­edly talks about the prospect of women be­ing al­lowed to study engi­neer­ing soon. The changes, which risk up­set­ting re­li­gious hard­lin­ers, come as Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is in­tro­duc­ing eco­nomic and so­cial re­forms as part of his “Vi­sion 2030” pro­gramme aimed at di­ver­si­fy­ing the king­dom’s oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy.

“So many things are hap­pen­ing right now that peo­ple are say­ing: ‘Has Saudi Ara­bia been hacked,’” Sharif said with a smile.

The elo­quent 38-year-old au­thor and ac­tivist has now set her sights on the next bat­tle: abol­ish­ing the sys­tem of male guardian­ship


Saudi women’s rights ac­tivist and au­thor Manal al Sharif poses for a pic­ture at the Frank­furt Book Fair 2017 in Frank­furt am Main, cen­tral Ger­many, on Wed­nes­day.

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