Manal al-Sharif, The Drive for Freedom, 2012

Manal al-Sharif

Women’s Rights Activist

One evening in 2011, Manal al-Sharif was leaving her doctor’s office in Al-Khobar, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when she began to feel unsafe. She could not find a ride home and a car had begun following her. The next day, she confided in a colleague how frustrated she felt that, although she possessed an international driver’s licence, she was not allowed to drive herself home in her own country. Following that incident, she created a Facebook page, a Twitter account and short video in which she urged other Saudi women with licences to participate in a protest drive on 17 June 2011. She had learned, she later explained, that there was no official law barring women from driving, only an unofficial (and enforced) ban. Soon afterwards, she filmed a video of herself driving and posted it online, where it quickly went viral. The next day, al-Sharif was arrested and sent to jail for nine days.

Being the public face of what became known as the Women2Drive campaign was not easy for al-Sharif, a divorced mother with a five-year-old, or her parents, who begged her to stop. But the movement was taking hold – other women were posting their own driving videos. In 2012, she was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent and was invited to give a speech in Oslo. Her employer, a Saudi oil company, did not want her to go; al-Sharif resigned. After speaking, a fatwa was issued, and al-Sharif eventually emigrated to Australia (because of divorce laws favouring the father, she was forced to leave her son behind). Yet her speech was a success, and in September 2017 she learned that the ban on Saudi women driving had been lifted. In her Oslo speech she recalled the first video she posted of herself driving. ‘I showed my face, I spoke with my voice, I used my real name,’ she said. ‘For me, the time of fear and silence was over. I used to be afraid of who I am, a woman. I was there to speak up for myself.’

The Drive for Freedom 2012

I always tell my mother, “they might handcuff me and send me behind jail bars, but I will never accept them putting cuffs on my mind. They can break my bones mom, but they can never break my soul”.

Years of being passive, whispering complaints with so many years of signing petitions and waiting for a response that would never come, we decided finally that the time of silence is over. We took an action to change our reality. Waiting will result in nothing but more waiting and frustration.

But sadly even after a year later, women are still waiting for a miracle to happen to change their reality; they are still waiting for a royal decree to lift the ban on women driving. They don’t know it will never come to them. It’s up to them to take the key and go behind the wheel and just drive, as simple as it sounds, as simple as it is.

I believe that children cannot be free if their mothers are not free, parents cannot be free if their daughters are not free, husbands cannot be free if their wives cannot be free, society is nothing if women are nothing.

For me, freedom starts within. Here (my heart) I know I am free, but there, in Saudi, I am certain the struggle has just begun, the struggle will end but I am not sure when, the struggle is not about driving a car, the struggle is about being in the driver’s seat of our own destiny, about being free not just to dream but free to live.