If you didn’t see this clip two years ago then you should see it now. Manal Al-Sharif is the woman behind the wheel of the car. And she is the first woman to drive a car in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
‘You know when you have a bird, and it’s been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn’t want to leave. It was that moment.”
Manal sat in her Cadillac SUV (Yes, the first car to be driven by a woman in Saudi was a Cadillac) and drove around the streets of Khobar while her friend recorded the journey.
If people remember, there was a great “call” for women to drive (Often by us) but it petered out. Scaremongering from the Saudi establishment drove them indoors. Women were threatened with “Wolves in the street who would rape you if you drive” and Manal basically had enough. It takes one person to break the wall to start a flood and Manal decided to be that woman.
The response from a lot of Saudi Arabian society was positive. The women felt she had broken a barrier. However the men? She received a near constant barrage of email and phone call death threats.
She worked for a company called Aramco who chided her for her “stunt”. In Response? Manal took 2 weeks off on Vacation leaving with a written message. “2011, Mark this year. It will change every single rule you know. You cannot lecture me about what I’m doing.”
In a country where women can be killed by their fathers this is a massive act of open defiance. Again, less than a week after her first drive she got behind the wheel of her car. This time she was stopped by the Traffic Police who quickly summoned the Saudi Morality Police (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice). She was detained for 6 hours and was released when all they could accuse her of was breaking tradition and that’s not a crime in Saudi Arabia unless they wish to start arresting all car owners and those who use electricity. She was again arrested a day later and held for a week and released only when her Father intervened and agreed to forbid his daughter from driving in the KSA ever again.
All for just driving a car.
The KSA was once one of the more permissive countries in the Middle East.
In 1979 Sunni extremists killed hundreds of worshippers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It took two weeks and aid from the French to break the siege. This resulted in a problem for the KSA. You see, the issue was that in any theocracy, the theocrat is king and the ultimate theocrat is the fundamentalist. This was an embarassment to the reigning Al-Saud family. So the government began a program of appeasement. It tried to build an education system based on islamic principles and became a moral islamic nation.
Women ceased to be taught and were excluded from common society. In one fell swoop to gain peace, the Al-Saud family disenfranchised the burgeoning rights of women. It was after this that radical Islam became a way of securing their strength.
This results in a terrifying country where just 12% of women work and own 5% of businesses. This was a country where morality police effectively locked 15 young girls into a burning school house (2002) and stopped their rescuers because these girls were not properly dressed.
Islam was used to divide society. In the bid for Radical Islam’s domination of the world, it created an atmosphere of ignorance and hate and considered anything moderate as a destruction of Islamic values.
In Saudi Arabia women may wear sexy lingerie but they do not wear it for their husbands. Think? You spend hours putting on make up then cover it behind a veil? These things are for the women. They wear it to know they are getting one over their oppressors. In a world where they cannot show their individuality outside they show their individuality inside. A few saudi friends told me how they would purchase the most outrageous heels and clatter along simply because that was one of the few ways they could be special.
In 1990 during the Gulf War we drove through Iraq and Saudi. My mum at that point had been driving for nearly 5 years. My parents collected news articles from the event. During that time? Women demanded the right to drive. They argued “It’s an emergency, their male guardians may not be available.”
We also have brochures that were distributed of women who drove in defiance of the ban with their names and house numbers encouraging people to “call them to come back to Islam”. It also used the same kind of language we in the west know and love when it comes to rape apologists and slut shamers. When in doubt? Accuse women of being sluts.
Ms. Sharif has paid a terrible price. She was awarded the Vaclav Havel (a man I regard as frankly amazing and one of the heroes of the modern world for his role in the freedom of the Czech Republic and peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union) prize and is the first holder of it. And that’s when things started getting worse.
“They said no one will embrace Islam after watching this speech, because what I showed is a violent religion. But what I showed was my personal story,” she says, adding that it is “an insult to Islam, to any religion,”
It’s never the fault of those responsible. It’s always the fault of the people who want to improve things. After all? If no one complains about injustice then no one will notice the injustice.
Ms. Sharif was pushed out of her job in May 2012 and has since relocated to Dubai, where she lives with her Brazilian husband, Rafael. The couple met in 2010 when they were both working for Aramco. She needed permission from Saudi Arabia’s interior minister to marry a non-Saudi, says Ms. Sharif, who has a 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. “It’s your personal life, and they get their noses into it even at that level.”
The minister rejected Ms. Sharif’s request to marry a foreigner, and her ex-husband bars her son from traveling outside the kingdom with her, so she can see him only by visiting from Dubai every weekend. “It’s the worst thing flying back to Saudi Arabia. I’m on the surveillance list, so every time I go, they stop me and they take more information. They monitor my travel.”
The al-Saud rulers, she says, are cracking down on dissidents out of fear that the Arab Spring’s reverberations might spread to the kingdom. In early March, two founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association received long jail sentences for, among other things, starting an unlicensed human-rights organization. The arrests, she says are meant “to shush the others, because they talk about the same things we talk about: constitutional monarchy, political parties, having political rights. So they take these people and make an example out of them.”
The sentences were handed down less than a week after new Secretary of State John Kerry visited the kingdom. His visit was a disappointment for Ms. Sharif and others who share her outlook. “He just praised Saudi Arabia for appointing 30 women to the unelected Shura council,” she says of Mr. Kerry. “It’s a fake body anyway, a powerless body. You can’t praise something that’s not tangible, that’s merely a cosmetic change.” If American officials aren’t willing to criticize the Saudis on their rights record, she says, “at least they shouldn’t praise them.”
As our interview ends, one question remains: Has Ms. Sharif gotten behind the wheel of a car in the kingdom since the heady days of her campaign? “Yes, I drove again,” she says. “I’m a normal woman, a normal person, and I just want to drive.”
This bird won’t be returning to its cage anytime soon.