“Nothing pisses off Saudi men or religious people like a woman behind the driving wheel,” she said. “It was very interesting because you can talk about women’s rights all your life, but nothing will bring attention to the issue like this video a woman driving. One religious opinionist said a woman driving will damage her ovaries. So now it’s not just religious — it’s scientific!”
To honor March as Women’s History Month, we take a look at history in the making – the extraordinary impact of Manal al-Sharif
Dubbed the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia, a country in need of some tough ladies, she chose to stand up for the rights of women in a country where this sort of thing – driving a car – just isn’t done. All sorts of reasons like the one above are provided by the male establishment. Another is a concern for their safety; having no male driver as guardian and chaperone, a woman’s chances of encountering sexual violence goes up. This tragic truism could be solved with better laws rather than this backhanded puppetry; even more absurd is the proposal to start importing foreign female chauffeurs – as if that would confine or subdue the protesting ladies.
In May 2011, when much of the Middle East was buzzing with the sounds of progress and revolution, she posted a video of her driving a car online and it landed her in jail. In the video she speaks about things in the big picture. Women are mythologized beyond belief in the sunni Saudi culture, which goes a lot further than the driving issue. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said “In Saudi Arabia, they always tell us we are queens. We are pistachios. You know the nut? Like something that is protected.” Manal sees patriarchal evidence wherever she goes: “I went to a technology conference in Germany and there were these beautiful, model-like women standing there in front of the products. I asked a question and she had no clue what the product was. She had to call someone from the back to explain it to me. To me, that’s using a woman as an object. To me, that’s totally wrong.” She continued, “In Saudi Arabia, it’s the opposite side. It’s demonizing the woman. Her body is demonized. She is told not to use her body. Both ways are totally extreme. There should be some moderate way.”
Although she realizes that moderation is the answer, her government is not helping things since the arrest – not for breaking any laws – for breaking a custom. She was pushed out of her job with Aramco, the national oil company where she was working as a computer-security consultant, and in May 2012 moved to Dubai where she lives with her Brazilian husband, Rafael. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister denied her request to marry a non-Saudi. To make matters worse, her ex-husband won’t allow her 7 year old son to travel outside the country with her, so she can see him only by visiting from Dubai on weekends.
How does she manage to carry on the fight? Once again, Ms. Sharif says it best in her own words:
“Women’s rights are nothing but a part of the bigger picture, which is human rights,” Ms. Sharif says. “Women are trusted with the lives of their kids, even serve as teachers and doctors, but they aren’t trusted with their own lives.”
Let’s join together in the hope that the painful sacrifice of this courageous figure creates the spark of lasting change for the civil rights in Saudi Arabian women.