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Manal al-Sharif – a driving force for change

„The struggle is not about driving a car, the struggle is about being in the driver’s seat of our own destiny.”

Manal al-Sharif, 34, was born in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country of deserts, the world’s largets oil reserves and the birth of Islam, often described as “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca), and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam. Saudi Arabia is also famous for one more thing – as of 2013 it remains the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive…not because of a written law, but due to the fact that Saudi scholars and religious authorities have declared women driving haram (forbidden). Commonly given reasons for the prohibition on women driving include:

  1. Driving a car involves uncovering the face.
  2. Driving a car may lead women to go out of the house more often.
  3. Driving a car may lead women to have interaction with non-mahram males, for example at traffic accidents.
  4. Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
  5. Driving would be the first step in an erosion of traditional values, such as gender segregation.

In May 2011, Wajeha al-Huwaider (Saudi feminist and activist) filmed Manal al-Sharif driving in the city of Khobar and the video was published on YouTube and Facebook. Manal called on women to participate in a „Women2Drive” campaign on June 17 of that year, and attracted 12,000 fans to a Facebook page she’d collaborated on called „Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself”. She was jailed for nine days and publicly shamed as a result of her activism, however she inspired a movement fighting for women’s rights.

Following her driving campaign, al-Sharif remained an active critic of the Saudi government, tweeting on issues including imprisoned female foreign workers, the lack of elections for the Shura Council, and the murder of Lama al-Ghamdi, whose father fatally raped, beat, and burned her (he served four months in jail and paid 200,000 riyals (roughly US$50,000) in blood money). She has also broadened her campaign to focus on guardianship annulment and family protection and has founded several groups throughout Saudi Arabia with the title “My rights, my dignity”.

International recognition

Regarding the 2011 women driving campaign, Amnesty International stated that “Manal al-Sharif is following in a long tradition of women activists around the world who have put themselves on the line to expose and challenge discriminatory laws and policies”.

Foreign Policy magazine named al-Sharif one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011, and she was listed in Forbes list of Women Who (Briefly) Rocked in the same year. In 2012, al-Sharif was named one of the Fearless Women of the year by The Daily Beast, and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2012. She was also one of three people awarded the first annual Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

If you want to connect with Manal al-Sharif, check her website: or follow her on Twitter: @manal_alsharif

If you want to listen to Manal’s inspirational TED talk and learn more about her story use the following link.

Want to learn more, read the following interview by Sohrab Ahmari on 22 March 2013 for The Wall Street Journal.

Country note

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, although, according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (that is, Islamic law) and the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Muhammad) are declared to be the country’s constitution, but no written modern constitution has ever been written for Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia remains the only Arab nation where no national elections have ever taken place, since its creation. No political parties or national elections are permittedand according to The Economist’s 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated.

Human rights’ situation

Saudi Arabia has long been criticised for its human rights record. Human rights issues that have attracted strong criticism include the extremely disadvantaged position of women, religious discrimination, the lack of religious freedom and the activities of the religious police. Saudi Arabia remains one of the very few countries in the world not to accept the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the continuing criticism of its human rights record, the Saudi government points to the special Islamic character of the country, and asserts that this justifies a different social and political order.

Women in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia have few political rights due to the government’s discriminatory policies. The World Economic Forum 2010 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity. Under Saudi law, every adult female has to have a male relative as her “guardian”. As a result, Human Rights Watch has described the legal position of Saudi women as like that of a minor, with little legal authority over their own lives, such as government authorities forcing women to obtain the legal permission of a male guardian in order to travel, study and work. Polygamy is permitted for men,and men have a unilateral right to divorce their wives (talaq) without needing any legal justification. The average age at first marriage among Saudi females is 25 years in Saudi Arabia. 60% of all university graduates in Saudi Arabia are Saudi women. The religious police, known as the mutawa impose many restrictions on women in public in Saudi Arabia. The restrictions include forcing women to sit in separate specially designated family sections in restaurants, to wear an abaya and to cover their hair. Women are also not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, although it is often tolerated in rural areas. Saudi Arabia has no written ban on women driving, but Saudi law requires citizens to use a locally issued license while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, thus making it effectively illegal for women to drive.

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2013 by and tagged , , .
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