Manar Alsharif was angry.
A 30-year-old Saudi wife, mother and working professional, she faced harassment, sometimes violent, when walking down the street unaccompanied. “You deserve whatever happens to you when you uncover your face,” she was told. And despite her age and accomplishments, Alsharif was still forced to hire a male driver if she wanted to avoid walking. In Saudi Arabia, while not technically illegal, it is socially unacceptable for women to drive.
The plight of Alsharif and other Saudi women extends far beyond the right to drive. In 2009 the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 131st out of 134 countries in a survey of gender equality (the United States ranked 31st). Women of any age are considered minors under Saudi law, and gender segregation pervades all sectors of Saudi society.
“Half the society is paralyzed,” Alsharif said. “Driving is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Alsharif’s campaign for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, and the backlash she faced from many Saudis, was the subject of a talk and discussion session recently held at Carleton College. During the event, which was sponsored by the Women’s Awareness House, students had the opportunity to ask Alsharif questions about her experiences, the political situation in Saudi Arabia and the prospects for change.
Alsharif’s campaign began as a personal act of defiance, she told the Carleton audience. On her birthday in the spring of 2011, she decided to violate the unwritten laws of Saudi Arabia and drive a car. A friend in the car with Alsharif filmed the drive and posted the video to YouTube. It was her way of saying “enough is enough,” she said.
The video soon attracted national and worldwide attention, garnering millions of views. Alsharif noted that Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries are heavy users of modern technology—60% of Saudis have smartphones—and that social media such as Twitter has been used to spur social change in places like Iran and Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia.
Alsharif was detained, released and rearrested by the Saudi government, charged with “inciting women to drive” and “rallying public opinion.” She helped create Women2Drive, an advocacy group supportive of the right to drive, and began pursuing legal action for the right to drive. Though there is no law against female drivers, Saudis require a locally issued license in order to drive, and these licenses are not issued to women.
In response to a question about whether social change is possible in Saudi Arabia, Alsharif said that the first step was letting women know they have rights, which is part of Women2Drive’s goal.
“Change in any society starts with women,” Alsharif said. “Women are so powerful, but they don’t recognize their power.”
Alsharif noted that many of the most vicious attacks on her have come from Saudi women, many of whom are “programmed” to believe themselves inferior to men. Without understanding their rights, it will be hard for Saudi women to stand up for themselves.
Nevertheless, Women2Drive has continued its campaign, expanding its fight to include other rights for women. While Alsharif believes that a major shift will only come with the creation of a constitutional monarchy, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, she believes her organization can gradually achieve real progress for Saudi women.
“I will not stop until the first drivers’ license is issued to a woman,” Alsharif said.