Manal al-Sharif’s path to activism began simply enough: In 2011, the Saudi woman filmed herself driving a car, then uploaded the video to YouTube. Ordinarily such a video might not get much notice, but because it’s not socially acceptable for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, where there is a de facto ban, Sharif’s video went viral.
Sharif describes driving as an act of civil disobedience: “For me, driving — or the right to drive — is not only about moving from A to B; it’s a way to emancipate women,” she says. “It gives them so much liberty. It makes them independent.”
Initially arrested for driving, Sharif was released when her story elicited outrage from around the world. She now lives in Sydney, Australia, with her second husband and son.
Though she is no longer in Saudi Arabia, Sharif remains outspoken about women’s rights: “When I see something wrong, I speak up,” she says of her advocacy on behalf of Saudi women. “It should be the norm, not the exception.” Her new memoir is Daring to Drive.
On the guardianship system for women in Saudi Arabia
We have the guardianship system and that is the one that imposes a lot of restrictions on me, as a woman. … A woman cannot choose her guardian. So when you’re born, your father is your guardian. When you get married, it moves to your husband. If you get divorced, it either moves back to your father if he’s alive; if he’s not alive, it could move back to your brother.
If you don’t have a brother, it could move back to your adult son, as young as 18 years old. He could be your own guardian issuing you permissions … for important things like going to school, getting a job, leaving the country, going to the court, even going to the police and complaining. They always ask for a man’s consent and permission.
On why she decided to advocate for Saudi women’s right to drive
I think it chose me. I didn’t choose it. As a single mom, I was divorced with a son and I had a car and I had a driver’s license, but I couldn’t drive my car. I was paying the installments for this car for five years. That was very frustrating. I almost got kidnapped once because I couldn’t find a car to take me back home.
It’s a daily struggle to find a car to do anything in your life in a country where there’s no public transportation and our cities are not pedestrian-friendly. It was a continuous struggle, and it was very empowering that I know how to drive. I have a car and I have a driver’s license. When I knew that there is no law, I was thinking, “Well, if there’s no law, so why are not driving?” It was accumulating, it didn’t just happen overnight.
On Saudi women’s reliance on foreign drivers
[Private drivers] get paid around $500 a month. No Saudi would accept this salary, and no Saudi will be 24/7 available … to drive you around. … [Drivers] work long hours with you, because they drop the kids at school, they drop you at work, when you need to go for grocery shopping, all these things — you will not find Saudis accepting these jobs.
The private sector itself in Saudi Arabia, 90 percent of the people working there are non-Saudis, so also the contradictions here make me mad, because you don’t allow me to mix with Saudis or men in general all my life, but then you enforce a perfect stranger to be living in my house, to be driving my own car and have my own phone number. …
Most of them don’t even know how to drive! My first driver, I had to teach him how to drive. He didn’t even know the signs. … He didn’t know the city. He didn’t speak Arabic.
On how her protest helped inspire others to drive
I know a girl, she’s 14 years old. She’s so young, but in Saudi Arabia, you can drive as a boy as young as 14 years old. She dressed like a boy and I met her mom and I met her other sister, and they said [the police] stopped her so many times and they found out she’s a girl, and she would plead with the police officer and explain to him that she doesn’t have anyone. But she continued driving.
She always posted videos of herself driving, and that was amazing. She said, “We never thought of buying a car, because we were three girls in the house,” — they don’t have a man — “until we saw you driving.”
Her mom … kept saying, “Don’t stop.” Her daughter said, “They stole Mom’s life. We’ll not allow them to steal my life.”
On the hard-line views she encountered as a student
In the ’80s in Saudi Arabia, you were radicalized. We were radicalized in the ’80s and the ’90s. There was one source of information, the books were censored and we had all these wars going on around in the Islamic world. … I was brought up in this era or in this time. … We’ve been through this. … Destroying our photos, stopping everyone from listening to music, questioning the beliefs of the others, the hate against the infidels, we were brought up this way. …
I always questioned them, even when I was practicing to be a “good Muslim” and I was trying to please God and stay away from hellfire and go to heaven, I was still questioning these things. I wasn’t really happy. The more I was trying to follow the rules we had been taught, the more miserable I became.
On undergoing female genital mutilation as a girl
The one, really, who circumcised us was a barber. He was my father’s friend. My mom herself was circumcised and she told us the story that she ran away when they cut one labia and the other one they couldn’t cut, and she was bleeding and she hid in the neighbor’s house.
It was shocking to me that [my] mom, she put us through the same thing. But the pressure from the society is huge … that a mother and a father can put their own daughters through so much pain just to abide by the society rules. This is how dangerous it is, that your own children, you put them through so much pain because you need to be obedient. …
I think the worst was not the pain, the worst is losing trust in the people you love. … It’s very difficult even to talk about today. … They didn’t explain to us what was going to happen. … These things bother me so much, that we put women through this pain, because it’s all about controlling us.
On the risks she faces when she goes back to Saudi Arabia to visit her son from her first marriage
I’m always worried, every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I’m always worried, because you never know when you’ll get arrested again, for a tweet or a retweet or something that I said in an interview like I’m doing now with you, something that slipped. So you have to always have this filter going on the whole time you talk.
Radio producers Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.