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.