In 2011, Saudi Arabian woman Manal al-Sharif made headlines around the world when she posted a video of herself driving on YouTube. Today, the Saudi Arabian government announced that it would allow women to drive in June 2018. Today on Mia Freedman’s podcast No Filter, Manal speaks about her decision to challenge the country she grew up in. Below is an edited extract from her 2017 book, Daring to Drive…
Inside Saudi Arabia, there had never been complete unanimity on the subject of women and driving.
The Saudi royal family and government officials have argued that Saudi society, not the government, should decide whether it is right for women to drive. After the 1990 protest, the Ministry of the Interior did issue a statement (although not a specific traffic rule) that “driving while female was illegal and subject to a fine.” (The Ministry of the Interior is also not a legislative entity, and a driving ban should technically be issued by a legislative body.)
That statement was based on the religious fatwa issued by Grand Mufti Bin Baz immediately after the November 6 protest, in which he called these women morally corrupt and underscored that it was haram for women to drive. But online I found other “grand Islamic scholars,” colleagues of Bin Baz, who questioned the decision to issue a fatwa against driving. One scholar, Al Albani, even suggested that in Muhammad’s (PBUH) time women could ride a donkey, so why not a car? Cars provided more protection for women. I was not the only Saudi woman growing desperate to drive. Only days after my humiliating walk along the side of the road, a friend invited me to join a Facebook event called “We are driving May 17th.”
Listen to a snippet of the incredible interview with Manal al-Sharif. (Post continues after audio.)
The event was being organised by a young woman named Bahiya. I discovered that I knew her aunt. I accepted the invitation immediately and asked if I could be added as an administrator. Facebook was the chief means of organising the near daily protests in Egypt and was playing a role in Tunisia and Libya as well. All of us had seen how a Facebook event and post could pick a date and issue a call for action. I wanted this to be a big event, well beyond forty-seven female drivers.
When I told one of my friends about the event, his response was, “Manal, that’s only about a month away. It’s too soon. Change the date.” So we did. We pushed it out to June 17, which happened by accident to be a Friday—most of the Arab Spring gatherings had been on Fridays as well. The friend also advised me to get on Twitter. Up until now, I had been focused on Facebook. It was how I had made and kept up with American friends. But Facebook is not big in Saudi Arabia—only about one-third of Facebook accounts in Saudi Arabia belong to women, and most women cannot post using their own photos or use their real names online.
If it is forbidden to show your face in public on a sidewalk, how can you show it in an electronic gathering place? In 2011, Twitter was the preferred form of social media for Saudis.
Saudi Arabia had more than 5 million Twitter accounts and about 2.4 million active Twitter users, defined as people who log in at least once a month. Twitter was the way to get our message out, my friend explained. So I learned to use Twitter. I registered my account under the handle @Women2Drive, uploaded a photo that one of our supporters had designed, and in the profile bio, I wrote, “We call on all Saudi women to drive on June 17.”
Within days, @Women2Drive had thousands of followers.
Congratulations to every woman in Saudi! Today is your day.
— Women (@Women2Drive) September 26, 2017
The movement quickly took on a life of its own. At night, once Aboudi (my son) was in bed, I posted items on Facebook. I tried my hand at writing press releases and getting blog posts. I wrote petitions for signatures and designed a logo. The enthusiasm was powerful. People were visiting our Facebook event page and retweeting our tweets. Within a week, people were coming to my house, asking if they could help.
Initially, I was encouraged that a good number of the men I knew—granted, a small circle, and entirely inside Aramco—supported the campaign. They saw it not as threatening but as liberating for all Saudis. Even my brother, the same brother who had been so horrified when I removed my hijab, supported me. He worked as a petroleum geoscientist, which required him to spend up to three weeks at a time out in the oil fields, far away from his wife and their newborn. They did not live inside the Aramco compound and he could not afford a driver, which meant that his wife was trapped at home until he returned. I remember him telling me that it broke his heart each time he left home, knowing his wife and son were helpless. They often stayed with me at the compound so that I could help them get around.
“When I come back from work,” my brother once told me, “I am very tired, all I want to do is rest, but at that moment, I have to take my wife all over the place.” He often had to make up excuses to leave work early so that he could drive his wife somewhere. The system left him and my sister-in-law entirely dependent. Each was without basic freedom. I also often needed my brother to drive me outside the walls of the compound. So he was “on call” for two women. “I’m with you,” he told me. “Go ahead.” I had convinced him. Now I had only another 7 million Saudi men to go.
"My brotheer was the first man I convinced. Now, the rest of them." Image supplied.
Almost as soon as we started posting to Facebook, men and even some women responded with harsh criticism. They railed that we “would destroy Saudi society” and “destroy Saudi family life.” Women driving “would lead to corruption and moral decay.” The entire campaign was subjected to fierce scrutiny. People asked constantly who we were—at this point, none of us were posting using our real names and our real photos—who was supporting us, whether the driving itself was legal, where the event was going to be held. Most ominous of all, they assumed that we were calling for public demonstrations.
This was unsettling because public demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia and the punishments for conducting them severe. A peaceful sit-down protest can result in a sentence of lashes, jailtime, and being banned from foreign travel. To make sure that we could not be called a “protest,” I wanted women to drive by themselves, not in groups, and to record themselves alone in their cars. Huddled one night in my town house, we decided that the best response to the criticism was to post a video on YouTube, answering all these questions and mistaken assumptions one by one. Though we had clearly stated on Facebook and in press releases what our goals were and what actions we planned to take, no one in Saudi Arabia seemed to understand.
But criticisms were not the only comments I received. Some of the responses contained words of concern, even fear. One friend who knew that I was involved emailed me directly, “Manal, you’re crazy. You’ll get in serious trouble if you go through with this. Think of the danger you’ll put yourself in, the danger to your son, your whole family.” Although I understood her worry, I felt that the campaign’s urgency and timeliness outweighed the dangers. Still, it was hard not to feel rattled by the comments, particularly those left by men on our Facebook event page. Over and over, they equated the Women2Drive campaign with women who were loose, sexually compromised, and of weak, immoral character. The comments were menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were “betraying Islam.”
Other men let us know how they’d use their iqal, the thick black cord men wrapped around their heads. The iqal is an old custom. Originally needed to hold men’s headdresses in place when the wind blew, now the black cord is largely decorative—although some men use it to hit their wives and their kids. I’ve never felt the sting of the iqal, but I’ve heard that the knotted rope is very painful. A Facebook page called “By Iqal” was founded to call on men to beat any women drivers they saw.
Despite this ugly resistance, I kept the image of the Arab Spring in my mind. Some of the girls backing our movement even put up a rival Facebook page stating that if any man beat a female driver, the woman would hit him back with her shoe. (Showing the soles of your shoes is regarded as particularly insulting in the Arab world.) I personally hate violence, but I felt that the message of this page was we are not afraid. We are determined. Again and again, when I reached out to others, I felt their personal support more strongly than I felt the doubts and hatred of strangers.
So I took the next step. I made an informational video for Women2Drive, in which I publicly revealed my identity. Unlike the other girls, I was divorced and self-supporting. I could take the risk. I remember the morning exactly. Each day I worked from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon. Then I would take care of Aboudi until I put him in bed at eight o’clock. Once he was in bed, I would work on Women2Drive, staying up until three or four in the morning. I never slept more than two or three hours a night. On the day I recorded the video, I got up at 5:00 a.m. Looking into the laptop camera, I explained what the June 17 campaign was about and exactly what would happen that day. I was careful not to call it a protest.
Listen to Manal's full conversation with Mia here. (Post continues after audio.)
I concentrated on speaking calmly and smiling continuously. I did not wear the full abaya; I made no effort to hide my face. I ended the video by reminding viewers, “We are your sisters, your mothers, your daughters. We expect your support, and now we’re giving you the chance to show it.” My final words were this: “The whole story: that we will just drive.”
I posted the video to YouTube, and within days it had had more than 120,000 views. Using my real name—including my last name, my tribal name—and showing my face gave the recording legitimacy and drew more attention to the campaign, and it also made me the public face of Women2Drive. Threatening comments directed at me began pouring in over social media. The posters wanted to dissect my appearance and speculate on whether I was a Sunni or a Shiite Muslim. If I were Shiite, that immediately made me suspect as a possible Iranian agent. Some commentators pasted a monkey’s face or a donkey’s over my own, or wrote about my nose or my “ugly uncovered face.” The posters attacked me for my “scandalous attempts” to drive and for disrupting Saudi society. I was called a “whore,” “immoral,” “Westernized,” a “traitor,” and a “double agent.”
"Just by speaking out, I was labelled all sorts of things."
The comments hurt. Some left me shocked, others simply disappointed, but I learned a valuable lesson. I saw that people preferred scandals to the very real plight of Saudi women. I saw too that people criticized me and the other women behind the Women2Drive campaign because they were afraid, afraid of any real change. I had miscalculated how much effort our opponents would put into switching the focus to me and away from the movement. I trained myself to ignore them. The other girls would send me links to the pages that attacked me and Women2Drive, but I told them, “Forget about these people. They are just noise.” Day by day, I toughened myself. I kept all my thoughts and emotions inside, I stayed quiet, and I moved on. I think that’s one of the things that puzzled our opponents. They thought they could break me with what they said, with what they posted.
Even at work I was harassed. But I always stayed polite. I always kept a smile on my face. I kept saying respectful things, emphasising that I am a Saudi, that I am proud to be Saudi, and that I love my country. I just want to change this custom. My strategy was never to defend and never attack. Educate people and get more supporters, that’s what I told all the girls. I began to see that there would be a price for standing up for my rights, as there had been for Saudi women before me. But I could not have foreseen the full consequences. I would soon learn that nothing upset Saudi men and the entire Saudi ruling order more than the simple act of women driving. The decision to take action in real life was what really scared our opponents.
There had been talk of driving before, but women across the country had never just picked a date and said, “That’s it. We’ve had enough. We are going to drive.”
You can buy Manal's buy, 'Daring to Drive', here.
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