In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. They must have consent from male guardians to pursue education, get jobs and receive hospital treatment. In 2011, Manal al-Sharif had enough. She
posted a YouTube video of her driving.
Saudi authorities arrested her and confiscated her car. Her public action inspired a movement called Women2Drive, featuring other Saudi women uploading videos of them behind the wheel.
This year, al-Sharif released a book, Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening, about her movement. She spoke to the Observer in advance of her visit to Dallas on June 20 for the World Affairs Council/News Radio 1080 (KRLD-AM) program in the station's CBS Radio Performance Showroom.
Observer: Did you start the movement on purpose?
Al-Sharif: Yes. No. It's a no. I wanted to do this. One of my friends had a cousin; her niece started a Facebook event. She said, "We will drive on May 17." I joined her, and I talked to the girl, and I said, "Listen, I was going to start something like this. This is amazing. We should do it together." So I was with her, the co-founder for Women2Drive, and we pushed in to June 17, one month later. I told her, "I know how to campaign. Let me handle this." So I started the Facebook page and the Twitter account, creating a local [campaign] and creating the videos. It was yes and no, intentionally and unintentionally.
How did you know how to campaign? Did you have a background in that?
I used to do it for small things but not for like the Women2Drive. I started a basketball team for females only in Aramco, which was the first one. I know how to use the social media.
What happened once you were released? What was the reaction from people?
When I was in jail, of course, all the mosques, the sermons were against Women2Drive. The backlash was so huge. Most social media was against my arrest. Even the people who were against the driving campaign, they were against my arrest.
That was encouraging, but the religious people, the religious establishment, were frenzied. They were so angry. They called for my lashing. They called me a prostitute. They called me all the names in the book: trying to corrupt the Muslim woman, it's a conspiracy from the west, you name it. The ultra conservative religious people in Saudi Arabia, were really one of my worst enemies because they used the [weekly national] Friday sermon to condemn my actions.
Were you scared?
I received death threats and rape threats. The girls, too. Oh my God, they started the Facebook page called The Iqal. An iqal is a headpiece that, because men in Saudi Arabia don't wear belts, they use the iqal if they want to discipline their kids and wife. They started this group Iqal that said that any girl who drives on June 17, they will lash her with the iqal. I mean, there were like 4,000 people joined that group and saying horrible things. One of them said, "I'm buying boxes of iqal. I'm going to give them for free on that day to discipline any woman who wants to go out and drive."
It was very offensive, and we reported it to Facebook, and they didn't close it. They didn't know why. We said this page is calling for violence against women. So the guests started another group, and they said, "Anyone who beat us, we will beat them back with our shoes."
Why do you think they took it so hard?
They don't want to change the status for women. For them, we want women to be locked into the house because this is her home, this is her place, her natural place. She shouldn't go out. Driving would make it easy for the woman to leave the house any time she wants, which is what we want. For them, it was a nightmare, that women leave the house any time they want. We want women to be able to go out and work. One of the major obstacles for women to work is the car.
How did the event on June 17 go? Did a lot of women end up driving their cars?
Yes. We don't have specific numbers. What we have only is the views that were posted on that day on YouTube. It's more or less a hundred women. A lot of videos came out that day, whether through what chat group, whether on Twitter accounts, whether on the YouTube channel, whether privately sent to us through the email and the Facebook page.
Do you think Americans understand the privilege they have with women being allowed to drive and women having more rights in America?
When I read the women's rights movement and the suffragette movement in the U.S. — Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement — I get inspired. I always tell my American friends: Freedom, if it's not used, it will be taken away from you. Do no take your freedom as a privilege. Take it as obligation. I always tell them, you have something amazing. You should use. It shouldn't be taken away from you.
Do you think your fight is more about a fight between men and women? Or do you think it's a fight between women and religion? Or women and government? Who do you think the fight is between?
I think it's everything. Woman with woman, that's how it starts. To believe that she has the right, she's equal to men. She doesn't have to be weak. She should be strong and empowered. She needs to believe that. She has the right for a good education, to choose her husband, to be independent financially. If she's married, then she has the right because usually when a girl is married, she doesn't work. The man owns everything. He can kick her out of the house with the kids because we don't have family law.
This is not only women and men, but women and government, everything. Women with themselves, women with their society. Women with the government and religious establishment. Because we have a lot of cultures and a lot of interpretation to the Islamic text that is taken out of the context. It's been used, it's been misused actually, the Islamic texts.
When we go and we discuss it with the religious establishment, we say we're Muslims. We don't want to reject Islam, but if you are not leaving us a choice. Because you don't listen to us, when you use this text out if its context, to control people. To gain power. In Saudi Arabia, the more you have a grip, the more you are controlling women, the more you are show your power in the society. For the women, the Saudi women, the Muslim women, because that's the birthplace of Islam.
Any change in my status as a society woman is very important to the other Muslim women. They look to the Saudi woman as a role model and to Saudi Arabia as a role model for them and a leader for the Islamic world. It's really hurting Islam image, and hurting the country itself and Muslim world, to be this radical. To be this intolerant.
Have you seen The Handmaid's Tale?
Oh my god. I read the article by Mona Eltahawy [an author and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times]. Did you read the article she wrote?
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No, I've just seen the show. What did the article say?
She said why the Saudi women are the women in The Handmaid's Tale.
So, you haven't seen the show at all?
No, but my girlfriend, she put it up on her Facebook. She's in the U.S. She's doing her master's in Washington, D.C., and she said, "The similarities struck me. It got under my skin when I was watching it." She said, "I couldn't watch it because this is our life in Saudi Arabia."
That's why I was curious about if you think Americans have a disconnect with what's going on in Saudi Arabia because we watched The Handmaid's Tale as fiction and something that will never happen.
But they can go back to the '50s and the '20s of the country, and that's the time we're in today. Because my girlfriends, their moms couldn't ... oh my God, when they were telling me the stories, I'm like, "This is like Saudi today, 2017." She said, "Yes, my mom, she was beaten by her parents." It was very common to discipline your kids. She couldn't get a credit card, a loan, something like this. They were explaining to me the things that you couldn't do as a woman. Good for you because you fought. Those women fought for you today to get what you have. Don't give that up. Know these women. Appreciate what they gave, what they did, because the struggle goes on. If you forget the struggle of how you got these rights, they will be taken away from you because you didn't appreciate this: Oh my god, a lot of people fought for me to get these rights.
Al-Sharif will speak to the World Affairs Council/News Radio 1080 (KRLD-AM) program at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20 in the station's CBS Radio Performance Showroom, 4131 N. Central Expressway.