Manal al-Sharif: The Woman Who Dared to Drive

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Manal al-Sharif got behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. Then she met the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.


‘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.”

This is how Manal al-Sharif felt the first time she sat behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s taboo against women driving is only rarely broken. To hear her recount the experience is as thrilling as it must have been to sit in the passenger seat beside her. Well, almost.

Ms. Sharif says her moment of hesitation didn’t last long. She pressed the gas pedal and in an instant her Cadillac SUV rolled forward. She spent the next hour circling the streets of Khobar, in the kingdom’s eastern province, while a friend used an iPhone camera to record the journey.

It was May 2011, when much of the Middle East was convulsed with popular uprisings. Saudi women’s-rights activists were stirring, too. They wondered if the Arab Spring would mark the end of the kingdom’s ban on women driving. “Everyone around me was complaining about the ban but no one was doing anything,” Ms. Sharif says. “The Arab Spring was happening all around us, so that inspired me to say, ‘Let’s call for an action instead of complaining.’ “

The campaign started with a Facebook FB -0.04% page urging Saudi women to drive on a designated day, June 17, 2011. At first the page created great enthusiasm among activists. But then critics began injecting fear on and off the page. “The opponents were saying that ‘there are wolves in the street, and they will rape you if you drive,’ ” Ms. Sharif recalls. “There needed to be one person who could break that wall, to make the others understand that ‘it’s OK, you can drive in the street. No one will rape you.’ “

Ms. Sharif resolved to be that person, and the video she posted of herself driving around Khobar on May 17 became an instant YouTube hit. The news spread across Saudi media, too, and not all of the reactions were positive. Ms. Sharif received threatening phone calls and emails. “You have just opened the gates of hell on yourself,” said an Islamist cleric. “Your grave is waiting,” read one email.

Aramco, the national oil company where she was working as a computer-security consultant at the time, wasn’t pleased, either. Ms. Sharif recalls that her manager scolded her: “What the hell are you doing?” In response, Ms. Sharif requested two weeks off. Before leaving on vacation, however, she wrote a message to her boss on an office blackboard: “2011. Mark this year. It will change every single rule that you know. You cannot lecture me about what I’m doing.”

It was a stunning act of defiance in a country that takes very seriously the Quran’s teaching: “Men are in charge of women.” But less than a week after her first outing, Ms. Sharif got behind the wheel again, this time accompanied by her brother and his wife and child. “Where are the traffic police?” she recalls asking her brother as she put pedal to the metal once more. A rumor had been circulating that, since the driving ban isn’t codified in law, the police wouldn’t confront female drivers. “I wanted to test this,” she says.

Written By: Sohrab Ahmari – WSJ
continue to source article at online.wsj.com

26 COMMENTS

  1. If religion and its utter codswollop is to be challenged and defeated, then it is women and men that defy the clerics and their nonsense.
    An atheist group no…no theist ever listens to atheist they only harangue, the reluctance to engage having more to do with a fundamental context in which claims of hell bound and possessed dominate the exchange…other governments no…because they don’t go there in negotiations, believing that ‘diplomacy’ trumps integrity every time, besides oil rules all considerations of common decency even simple humanity.

    The only way it will change is for the victims to speak out for the society, they live in, to turn and for that revolution to be supported morally by the rest of the world, in speech, article, internet fora and all media.

    Outside influence never achieves half as well as internal agitation.

    That woman is brave and sassy, and an inspiration for the generation she was born into and the next generation to come.

    Deep respect to her, they can jail her whip her whatever but that courage will never break…that is what revolution requires, a determination and a will of iron!
    She seems to have both…I do so wish her well!

  2. I wish Ms Sharif all the luck in the world; she’s going to need it. I’d like to know what Women’s rights associations and similar organisations all over the world are doing to help Saudi women. When it comes to Saudi Arabia it seems that all abuses that happen there are silenced by the international press and civil rights organisations. Saudi Arabia’s abuses against people are worst than Iran’s, but Iran’s horrors are frequently published while Saudi Arabia’s are often overlooked. If you are friendly to Western interests, you’ll be able to commit all kind of atrocities; you’ll be forgiven.

  3. Ah yes but even in the enlightened West cheap laughs are gleaned from the mention of the phrase “Women drivers!”. At least we in the West hide our prejudices under a cloak of embarrassed silence nowadays.

    • In reply to #8 by aquilacane:

      I wonder what she thinks about the death penalty for apostasy? Is she for equal rights or my rights.

      The lady is on Twitter: Manal al Sharif

      Why not ask her yourself instead of making the mean-spirited assumption that because she happens to be Muslim she must believe in capital punishment for apostates.

      Or do you assume that all Christians hate gay people as a matter of course, too? That is what their Bible tells them to do.

  4. It’s ALL about oil-without which western nations would have no need to tolerate Saudi extremism

    “Since 1982, the Saudis have withheld their well data and any detailed data on their reserves, giving outside experts no way to verify Saudi claims regarding the overall size of their reserves and output. This has caused some to question the current state of their oil fields. In a study discussed in Matthew Simmons’s book Twilight in the Desert, 200 technical papers on Saudi reserves by the Society of Petroleum Engineers were analyzed to reach the conclusion that Saudi Arabia’s oil production faces near term decline, and that it will not be able to consistently produce more than 2004 levels.[2] Simmons also argues that the Saudis may have irretrievably damaged their large oil fields by over-pumping salt water into the fields in an effort to maintain the fields’ pressure and boost short term oil extraction.

    Diplomatic cables leaked during the United States diplomatic cables leak in 2011 revealed that Sadad al Husseini, former vice president of Saudi Arabia’s oil monopoly Aramco, warned the US that the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia might in fact be 40% lower than claimed (300bn barrels).[9][10]“

    I do hope this is factual…

  5. About 20 years ago I was teaching a Saudi man English. He’d come over for a summer language course. He was clearly deeply in love with his wife, and told me proudly how he let her drive as soon as they were out of eyesight of any troublesome police. He said that lots of people did, and he was so proud of his wife for doing it. I hope that things haven’t gone backwards since the Arab Spring, but I think we do have to bear in mind that many normal Saudi men go against the conventional image that we are given.

    • In reply to #12 by TenderHooligan:

      I think we do have to bear in mind that many normal Saudi men go against the conventional image that we are given.

      I’ll second that. Certain business connections inside the Kingdom freely communicate their frustration with the limitations on their own wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. Those women are suffering under this social system and plenty of men are suffering under it too. The heavy handed chaperoning and gender separation are a huge social burden that is increasingly seen as absurd and primitive, especially by the younger set.

      As I’ve said in previous comments, the new worldwide media access will eat away at these Islamic fundamentalists and their Fascist ways.

      Drive Saudi women!

      Throw those abayas in the dumpster and feel the desert wind whipping through your hair as you put the pedal to the medal in your big American Cadillacs!

  6. “Men are in charge of women.”

    That doesn’t mean a woman can’t drive a car with her husband or father’s permission.

    If women are denied the right to drive because the Quran doesn’t say it is permitted, then what logic do they use to say the it is permitted for men?

    “there are wolves in the street, and they will rape you if you drive,”

    Presumably the police are too busy ‘doing something more important’ than arresting all the rapists overrunning Saudi Arabia. I wonder what that could possibly be?

    Finally I’d like to wish Ms al-Sharif well, you have nothing to lose but your chains,

  7. So how did she learn to drive if women are banned from driving? I know very little about Saudi laws for driving but if an unqualified British teenager just jumped into a car in the UK and drove round while his mate filmed it we would call this irresponsible behavior and say that they are putting other peoples lives at risk.

    At the end of the day im all for standing up to oppression but to drive round when you havent passed any kind of test is just simply dangerous and could result in death.

    • In reply to #15 by AtheistSquaddie:I asked the guy who let his wife drive that question. He said there were loads of quiet spots out in the desert where he taught her to drive. Same thing here probably.

      So how did she learn to drive if women are banned from driving? I know very little about Saudi laws for driving but if an unqualified British teenager just jumped into a car in the UK and drove round while his mate filmed it we would call this irresponsible behavior and say that they are putting other peoples lives at risk.

      At the end of the day im all for standing up to oppression but to drive round when you havent passed any kind of test is just simply dangerous and could result in death.

    • In reply to #18 by sycorax:

      Islam IS the problem

      Religion is the problem…and the more patriarchal the greater is that problem.

      The similarities and basic dogma between the fundamentalist Muslim and Xtian loony fringes are negligible, this betrays the core principle and reality that they are for all intents and purposes descended from the same ancient toxic brain fart as indeed history tells us.

      The three major Abrahamic cults are one of the same with just slightly different emphasis, they literally evolved depending on frame of reference and environment but they remain essentially the same a shell game dripping scam and avarice, with a penchant for greed and lust for power promoted by the decrepit, ignorant, fear laden, geriatric and patriarchal.

      They dismiss women, in fact they vilify them, because women and their bodies fluster and embarrasses them, and all acolytes hate any sexuality which they neither understand or frightens or indeed threatens, that which mystifies terrifies simple like so!

      Most religions and certainly the major delusions seem to have an hierarchy that is ageing , sexually immature, frightened of the world and mentally inadequate if not outright incapable.

      No one religion owns the monopoly on self imposed imbecility that is so maliciously malevolent.

  8. In reply to #21 by bluebird:

    Interesting. I’m not aware of blogs by Saudi women, not that I’ve checked either, but anonymity is crucial obviously. At this point I would be satisfied with the Saudis in general having access to at least reading blogs and websites from the West. It might seem a passive ineffectual behavior, but what I have observed in that part of the world is that women don’t even have an inkling of what to demand in the first place. Or it could be that they have a nasty view of how women live here because that is what was drummed into their minds by the powers that be and they had no way to make observations for themselves and make up their own minds about how we women live here in the States, Europe, etc. This is when we hear conversations with Moslem women such as,

    “Those Americans let their daughters run wild like a bunch of little whores”

    “Oh really? How many American women do you know?”

    “Just you”

    “Don’t you think you should be asking questions about what it’s like to be an American woman instead of telling an American woman what American women are like?”

    But now that some Muslim families have computers in the home and many young people stop by the internet cafes and cruise around on websites, there is a much wider knowledge among those young people as to how we actually live and what our views are on many issues. At least we can have a chance to rebut when they present these insulting opinions about us. Granted, I rarely get any satisfaction from them in the moment, but ideas, as we know, are infectious. I have to hope that’s worth something otherwise I’d not be able to continue with these conversations. It can be very discouraging and I usually hit a brick wall when something I say conflicts with the Koran. That’s when I cease to be one of the women and in an instant become one of the Infidels.

    I think that when we say things like, “It’s never ok for a guy to beat you I don’t care what your book says” and “Why is your word worth half of a guy’s word in court? What if the guy is an obvious idiot?” and “Why should your daughter inherit less than your son? Just because a one thousand year old book says so? Shouldn’t that be up to you and only you to decide what your children inherit?”

    Thanks to the internet and satellite TV in many homes, they are now certainly aware of the wide discrepancy in how our women live and the opportunities available to us and the lack of opportunities in their own domains.

    They are learning what to ask for.

    • In reply to #22 by LaurieB:

      In reply to #21 by bluebird:

      Interesting. I’m not aware of blogs by Saudi women, not that I’ve checked either, but anonymity is crucial obviously. At this point I would be satisfied with the Saudis in general having access to at least reading blogs and websites from the West.

      The internet censorship in Saudi is limited pretty much exclusively to porn, proxy servers, and anti islamic websites. I don’t even think it’s strictly monitored. You might find it easier if you make friends with an Arabic speaker, English isn’t really that big of a deal over there outside of those who travel.

      • In reply to #24 by Virgin Mary:

        You might find it easier if you make friends with an Arabic speaker, English isn’t really that big of a deal over there outside of those who travel.

        haha! Dude, I’m married to one! I speak a fluent but atrociously hacked up Arabic. It’s plenty good enough to move about in that society. ;-)

  9. I was there for this!!! Ex-pats in Khobar were buzzing and the locals were going crazy! I tried to track her down because I contributed a little bit to one of the only free media sources in the Gulf based out of Oman. There were quite a few women in Jeddah doing the same thing but this woman was the face of it.

  10. Ms. Sharif received threatening phone calls and emails. “You have just opened the gates of hell on yourself,” said an Islamist cleric. “Your grave is waiting,” read one email.

    The bigots could come to England and have the fear of Allah put into them!

    Imagine having to pay a fare to a woman who is not covered in a burka – and then being driven by her through city traffic in a double decker bus!!! Do you think they could cope????

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