Three years ago, in the midst of the explosive Arab Spring, Manal al Sharif took the wheel of her Cadillac SUV, looked into her friend’s iPhone camera and said, as she made a left-hand turn, “We want change in this country.” For defying Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving—just one example of the limitations set forth by culture and law in a place where women need a man’s permission to get a passport, attend school, or even receive medical treatment—al Sharif was imprisoned for nine days. But the trail she blazed stayed open and led to a Women2Drive movement that has inspired dozens of women to follow her lead as well as a much larger discussion about women’s rights.
We spoke with al Sharif this week as she prepared to travel from her adopted home of Dubai to attend Friday's Women in the World talk in Los Angeles.
Women in the World: What was the experience of driving like for you, and how has it changed, as the Women2Drive movement has gotten underway?
Manal al Sharif: In our country, the topic of women driving is a huge taboo. During the first major protest, in 1990, you couldn’t even bring it up in the newspaper. But it’s a daily struggle in a huge country of 18 million—half of them women, and many who are working—where there is no public transportation, no good taxi system. This ban keeps women inside the home. But as Twitter became huge in Saudi Arabia, we suddenly had the tools to speak up. It was the right moment to call for change—and to create it.
My arrest, though, made even the ones totally against women driving say, “This is a shameful thing.” The society was in huge shock that the police cracked down on a woman—a mother. It was an embarrassment for the government, yet still they didn’t want the movement to succeed. That would mean opening a door that would never again be closed.
WITW: These days you live between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. After all of this attention, what is it like for you to be home?
MS: My son still lives in Saudi, and when I go to see him, the people there who follow my news are divided. You know the story of Malala? Many Pakistanis will say horrible things about her—that she is damaging the country’s image abroad. It’s shocking, but that’s what happens if you call for change and people aren’t used to it. I’ve been labeled the same way. Some people find inspiration from what I say—especially girls—but many are too afraid to speak out. And then there are the clerics who say, “May God punish Manal.”
MS: For three years now I’ve heard “we’re going to do this and that to you,” and “we know your house and your family’s house.” After my New York Times piece, there were hashtags calling to take my nationality away from me. But all these haters, I only see them online—I don’t see them in my real life.
WITW: In a recent essay, you mentioned that the French Revolution took 90 years to achieve its goals. How is your revolution progressing? How, if at all, has the anti-terrorism law that went into effect last month changed the situation for activists? What about for you personally?
MS: There are two answers here: One for the government, and one for the people. The government is trying to keep a balance and really failing. Now they’re saying that all movements calling for change are terrorist movements—that the Muslim Brotherhood, which used to write all our textbooks and teach at our universities, are terrorists. They used to be heroes, and now they’re not good enough. As the government experiments, using religion to gain more power, going through all these contradictions, we, the people, are the lab rats.
For the people, though, it’s gotten better. Social media has become the people’s parliament—a new kind of system, where they can go and bring up these issues, which puts pressure on the government. Since the Women2Drive movement brought a lot of attention and embarrassment, the government is trying to be responsive while at the same time trying not to piss off the establishment. They’ve appointed women to the Shura Council, and while it has no [legislative] power, the move was symbolic. The government may be an absolute monarchy, but 50 percent of our nation is under 25; if that old political system doesn’t evolve, it’ll become extinct. Now that people are realizing their power, speaking up, catalyzing change, nothing will stop us.