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How Manal al-Sharif became an accidental activist for Saudi Arabian women

When Manal al-Sharif got behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia – a taboo act for a woman – authorities were far from impressed, and she paid a big price for her defiance.

Manal al-Sharif is an accidental activist. She doesn't want to be one and it has brought her nothing but trouble. Her misfortune was to be born a woman in Saudi Arabia, and there comes a point in a woman's life when not being able to do anything without the permission of a man starts to get you down.

For al-Sharif, now 38 and living in Australia, that moment came when she was 32. She had been to the doctor's early one evening in al-Khober city, a 15-minute drive from where she lived in Dhahran, and was walking down the street trying to find a taxi. Men driving past jeered at her and harassed her. One man followed her for so long that, terrified, she eventually threw a rock at his car, before bursting into tears. She had a driver's licence (from the United Arab Emirates) and owned a car, but Saudi custom forbade her to drive it. She was an educated adult with a job and a child. Enough was enough.

"Why do I have to be humiliated?" she says. "Why can't I drive when I have a car and a licence? Why do I have to ask colleagues to give me a ride, or my brother, or look for a driver to drive my own car?" Why indeed? She had bought the car when she was married and could afford a driver. When she divorced, she couldn't. It was May 2011, and while Saudi clerics were advancing the not-especially-compelling argument that driving could damage women's ovaries, the Arab Spring was unfolding. Al-Sharif watched videos on social media and told a friend that she was going to organise her own day of action. She was going to film herself driving and post it on YouTube.

"He said, 'Ooh, troublemaker,'" she says. "I said, 'No, history-maker.'" As it happened they were both right. The video was viewed 700,000 times in one day. A train of events had started that would change the lives of her whole family. Her father heard his daughter condemned in the mosque. Her brother and his family received so much harassment that they eventually left the country.

As for al-Sharif herself, the secret police came for her at 2am and she spent a week in a cockroach-infested prison. The offence on the charge sheet read: "Driving while female."

Al-Sharif was born in 1979. She says her story is that of an entire generation. "We were indoctrinated. At school, 60 per cent of what we studied was religion. We were told only one side of the story of Islamic faith, the Wahhabi side. We were lied to. We wanted to be good Muslims. I was brought up to follow the rules and listen to the man.

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"They said covering our faces was to please God, but if you cover a woman's face then she becomes invisible. She loses her identity. It's got nothing to do with being devout, it's about controlling women's bodies. It's about men being seen to be in charge. When a man asks his wife to cover her face, it says, 'You belong to me.'"

The only non-academic subjects that girls were permitted to take were sewing, drawing and home economics. If girls went to the souk, men handed out leaflets saying that wearing the veil was for their own good, that it preserved their honour and dignity. A woman's duty was to subordinate herself utterly to her husband. She couldn't study, travel, marry, work or get medical treatment without the consent of a male relative.

By the time al-Sharif was a teenager, she believed it. She burnt music cassettes, seeing them as sinful, and experimented with wearing the face-covering niqab. However, she also continued with her education, graduating in computer science from university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city. She was awarded an internship at Aramco, the state-owned oil and gas company, for which her father had to sign a consent form. At 24 she married a controlling and abusive man, and two years later gave birth to her first son, Aboudi, now 12. She divorced her husband when her son was two after the former beat her up savagely.

If education started her journey to becoming an activist, travel cemented it. Posted by her employer to the US for a few months, she was astounded. She could open a bank account, get in a car, do anything she liked. She stopped wearing the hijab and, once back home in Saudi Arabia, wore it only at work. "I'm proud of my face," she writes in her book, Daring to Drive. "I will not cover it. If it bothers you, don't look. If you are seduced by merely looking at it, that is your problem. You cannot punish me because you cannot control yourself."

Of all the forms of oppression faced by Saudi women, why was it the driving ban that irritated her the most? "Because I believe that when women drive in my country, that will liberate them. We don't have pedestrianised cities; there's no proper public transport. Driving is the key. It means that women are independent, they can leave the house, they don't have to wait for a male guardian.

"Guardianship is the source of all evil when it comes to binding women. I'm 38 years old, I am a mother, I pay my own bills but, legally, I'm a minor. I can't do anything. I have to go to my father to get my passport. It's outrageous.

When women drive in my country, that will liberate them.

"Once women can drive, all this evil will fall."

She set up a Facebook page, Women2Drive, where young women who wanted to learn to drive could contact women who could teach them. Then, on June 17, 2011, she and about 35 Saudi women did something radical: they got behind the wheel, something that was forbidden, although not, al-Sharif had discovered, technically illegal. She was called a whore, a traitor and a spy. Colleagues shunned her and Aboudi, then six, was bullied. After three months of harassment from his colleagues, her brother moved his family to Kuwait. The online comments beneath the YouTube videos were so offensive that she had to delete them.

With her Emirati driver’s licence (Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue licences to women).

Manal al-Sharif with her Emirati driver’s licence (Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue licences to women). Photo: Supplied

Her girlfriends, meanwhile, told her she was creating a scandal and shaming her countrymen. They warned her not to write her book. They were scared. She may be a rebel to her own generation, she argues, but millennials are on her side. "They talk the same as me. Finally I don't feel like I'm ostracised. How long do we have to shush each other?"

She dismisses claims by the ruling royal family that Saudi society is too conservative to accept women driving as "rubbish nonsense" and rails against the hypocrisy of Western governments in not doing more. She suspects, like many observers, that the UK was one of the countries that voted in April for Saudi Arabia to become a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The British Foreign Office refuses to confirm or deny this, but her outrage is palpable.

"We were like, 'What? A country that is proud to have women's rights, that has a woman PM, would vote for Saudi Arabia to join this commission?' Saudi is ranked 141/144 on the Global Gender Gap Index. It should not be a member and should not have been voted in by countries like the UK that support women's rights.

"It happened exactly seven days after one of our prominent activists had been jailed for disturbing the public order. That was a stab in the neck for me. If you won't put some pressure on your ally for women to drive, at least don't support them and put them in such powerful positions." 

She is equally disdainful of Ivanka Trump, who recently said how encouraged she was by the advancement of women's rights in the kingdom. The West, al-Sharif argues, has an obligation to use its freedoms to advance Saudi women's liberty by applying more diplomatic pressure. She was thrilled when the Saudi Arabian Olympic team were told that they had to include female athletes if they wanted to compete at the 2012 London Games. "That was huge," she says. "Historic. We need more things like that."

Sarah Attar at London 2012: the first Saudi woman to compete in athletics during the Olympics. 'We need more things like this,' says al-Sharif.

Sarah Attar at London 2012: the first Saudi woman to compete in athletics during the Olympics. 'We need more things like this,' says al-Sharif. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Saudi women may not attain equality in her lifetime but she thinks it will eventually happen, and warns that change can only come from within. "You cannot ask for your rights if you don't believe you have rights. Women need to believe that they deserve to be treated equally and that they deserve to be full citizens in their own country."

Simple economics are on her side. The oil price collapse and two years of conflict with Yemen has meant that Saudi Arabia is no longer quite as wealthy as it was. The state oil company is due to be partially floated on stock exchanges next year, and al-Sharif thinks the Saudi government may make concessions to avoid any negative headlines. She is also jubilant at talk of the government having to levy taxes for the first time.

"Only 11 per cent of women work today. You cannot have that if you want people to pay taxes, you need them to go to work and be productive. There are all these women who are highly educated with no jobs, because they don't want men and women to mix in the workplace, and they don't want women to drive. That's a luxury they can't afford any more."

Al-Sharif's struggle has cost her her job, her country and her son Aboudi. When she was invited to talk about her struggle at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, Aramco forbade her to go, so she resigned. When she wanted to remarry, to a Brazilian man she met at Aramco, the government refused her permission. She married in Dubai in 2012, at which point she automatically lost custody of Aboudi. He now lives with his paternal grandmother, while al-Sharif has moved to Australia for her husband's work. "My first impression on arrival here was, 'What beautiful nature.' I have got my Australian driver's licence and am excited at the thought of driving around the coast of this continent. And in co-operation with an Australian professor and students at [Sydney's] Macquarie University, I'm starting a social enterprise called Drive for Freedom, to help Saudi women studying or living abroad to gain their driver's licence."

Manal al-Sharif sees older son Aboudi only two or three times a year

Manal al-Sharif with older son Aboudi, who she can only see when she visits Saudi Arabia. Photo: Supplied

She sees Aboudi only two or three times a year, and he has never met his two-year-old half-brother, Daniel, her son with her second husband. The Saudi authorities won't allow her to take her younger son into the country or her older son out. "I want to go back to Saudi Arabia, of course I do," she says. "I want my children to be together. I thought I'd get government approval for my marriage in a few months and I'd be back, but it's now been five years. That's being an activist in my country. Welcome to my life. Welcome to Saudi Arabia."

Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster) is out now. 

Edited version of a story first published in The Tmes (UK)