Faceless, voiceless and nameless
That’s how Manal Al-Sharif describes herself prior to the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings that began in the Middle East in early 2011. That was the year her world changed forever, when TIME Magazine would declare this previously unheard of, divorced, hijab-wearing mother, one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Up until that point Al-Sharif was a successful, even trailblazing Middle Eastern woman — a bachelor’s degree in computer science to her name, she was the national oil company’s first female IT security consultant. She worked for a brief time in Boston, Massachusetts. And it was there that, aged 30, she got her driver’s license. That western right of passage would change the course of her life.
Back home in Saudi Arabia, she found herself bemoaning the women’s driving ban to a colleague — she was fed up of the harassment she incurred in the streets when she tried to secure a ride home from work. “What driving ban?” her colleague wanted to know. That’s how Al-Sharif discovered that there was no law preventing Saudi women from getting behind the wheel, it was simply a deep-rooted, societal norm that few females — indeed none of her generation — had dared to challenge.
Al-Sharif not only dared to get in the driver’s seat. She had a friend record her there, along with her fierce diatribe against the cultural oppression that prevented others from doing the same. She posted the video on YouTube (watch it below), asking women all over the kingdom to hit the road on what she called Women2Drive day, June 17th. The video attracted 700,000 views on its first day.
Her next road outing ended in her arrest. Despite there being no legal driving ban, she was imprisoned for nine days and received rape and death threats. The international community spoke out, including Hillary Clinton who condemned her treatment.
Upon her release, Al-Sharif renewed her efforts to encourage other women to follow in her tyre marks. Over 100 did, and despite a huge police presence on the roads, no further arrests were made. The fourth petition to the King’s council was successful: Saudi women could finally drive without fear of prison or a public lashing.
Al-Sharif left her IT role the following year, citing marginalisation by her employer, particularly after she took time off to travel to Norway to collect a prestigious prize recognising creative dissent.
Since 2012 she has devoted her time to activism, including speaking out against a Saudi Government initiative to inform husbands by text message when their wives or daughters leave the country, and drawing attention to the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl at the hands of her father, who served only four months for his crime.
Manal Al-Sharif’s most inspirational quotes
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening is published in June 2017 by Simon & Schuster.