12 Jul 2017

Manal al-Sharif: daring to drive

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 12 July 2017

Manal al Sharif is an outlaw. Her crime; driving as a woman in Saudi Arabia.

In 2011 in the shadow of the Arab Spring, she organised protests to support women's rights to drive and was arrested for getting behind the wheel.

She now lives in Australia. She writes about her decision to fight the law that limits the independence of women in Saudi Arabia in her memoir, Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening.

Manal al-Shraif

Manal al-Shraif Photo: wikipedia

One day in 2011, as a 30-year-old woman with a car and a license in a country without public transport, al Sharif got in her car and drove.

The video she subsequently posted of herself driving on Facebook led to her being arrested twice and inspired many other women to stand up for their own independence in a country where women are classed as minors under a system of male guardianship.

Mecca - where she grew up - is an international city yet has 66 official slums, no parks and no public transport.

Fundamentalist Islam thrived in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s, and when she was growing up her family adhered to very conservative rules to fit in.

Voicing doubts about the system got you into trouble, yet she always questioned it.

"When we are taught things in schools or at home or in mosques, it's been always told to us 'This is the only truth and nothing else is true but this'."

She says her decision to get in get car and drive was an act not of bravery but of encouragement to other women.

The video took off, but it brought online abuse and eventually arrest for al Sharif.

The second time she was arrested she went to jail with no trial, but after Amnesty International and other human rights organisations got involved she was released after nine days, when it was determined that legally it was a custom, not a law that she broke.

"I was amazed when I got out of jail to see the country was really divided. Even the people who were against women driving were against putting a woman in jail for driving."

Saudi's new 32-year-old crown prince, who has a more progressive attitude, is a positive signal for her country, she says.

"We finally have someone who understands the youth."

Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the world but previously had leaders three times the average age of the population.

Millennials are changing the game in Saudi Arabia, she says.

"They're the ones who are changing the country and they're the ones who are breaking all the rules and changing all the rules that we've been taught."

When she returns to Saudi Arabia from Australia she has to be prepared.

"I'm always ready to be arrested. I always have extra clothes with me, I also have my husband's number on speed dial and a lawyer's number."

Despite that she hasn't give up on change coming to her country.

"I know it's happening and it's coming."

And she's uncomfortable being described as an activist.

"We should not label people who speak up because it should not be the exception, it should be the norm. When you see something wrong, you speak up. When you see corruption, when you see injustice, you speak up. You don't just shut up and say it's none of my business … I think it's very important to not label people who speak up."

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