The Los Angeles Times printed this interview with Manal al-Sharif by Emily Alpert. A link to it is here, and text below.
Manal Sharif has been jailed, insulted and
threatened. Her enemies faked her death, in a hamhanded bid to make an
example of her. This year, she says, she was forced out of her job. Her
life has been turned upside down by a crime that isn’t even a crime --
driving in her country, Saudi Arabia.
"There’s a famous saying in Arabic: When you oppress people, you make
them heroes," she said. "I couldn’t understand why I was in jail. But
that’s what created all this."
Driving isn’t actually illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, as Sharif
is quick to point out. But because Muslim clerics have declared it
forbidden, the traffic department refuses to grant women licenses.
Sharif is among a group of women who have contested the ban.
Last year, after millions of people viewed an online video of
her driving, Sharif was detained twice by police who insisted that she
stop and demanded to know who was behind the campaign. She was released
after an outcry but continued to face death threats and other attacks.
The furor also made her famous, feted as one of the most influential
people in the world by Time magazine and awarded a prize in Oslo for
"creative dissent" -- a prize that ultimately cost Sharif her job when
her employer told her she couldn’t leave the country to accept it, she
She did anyway, leaving her jobless after her trip to Europe this
spring. But there is plenty for Sharif to do: The campaign that began as
a plea to allow women to drive has expanded to contest all kinds of
sexism in Saudi Arabia, where women must obtain permission from men to
work, travel or study.
Activists are pushing for women to drive again Friday; an earlier driving protest was
delayed after the death of the Saudi crown prince. The Times talked to
Sharif about her quest in the year since she and her fellow activists
urged Saudi women to get behind the wheel.
Why do you think driving has been so sensitive in Saudi Arabia, even more so than women voting?
There are people who will fight back because it's a financial loss
for them. If you want to get a driver, you have to go to an office and
give them money to bring you a driver from India or Indonesia. It's a
business for them. We’ve been told they get 800 million riyals every
year. So businessmen will do all kinds of campaigns to discredit us and
say bad things about us. It's like a war.
Then there are the religious people. If they lose their grip on
controlling women, they lose the grip on the whole society. We believe
these smaller subjects are used to make people not discuss the more
important thing, which is the male guardianship system for women. Being
treated as a second-class citizen. All of this is the tip of the
iceberg. There are children, 10 years old, and they drive because their
moms or sisters cannot drive! A woman has to have her driver go with her
to the office, go home, come pick her up, go home. This means more
crowded streets and more pollution.
Do women defy the ban in their daily lives?
Sometimes it's really urgent and a woman has to drive, like the kid
is dying. But usually the women do not know how. It's a very foreign
act. My friend, her dad died in front of her waiting for the ambulance
because she couldn’t drive. She said, "If I could drive I would have
saved my father." Even if a woman wants to do it and knows how, your
neighbors see you driving and call the religious police.
What has happened since the protests last year?
We’ve been talking to officials, writing articles, campaigning,
trying to teach women to drive. I filed the first lawsuit against the
traffic police for not issuing me a license. We believe the driving
campaign rocked the boat. People talk about it now. The taboo has
opened. There’s also been so much international attention.
I never understood it, why people are so interested in women driving.
But when I met Kathryn Cameron Porter, president of the Leadership
Council for Human Rights, in the United States, she said, "Manal, you
find women who didn’t care because we take everything for granted, and
when they see this, they say, 'What? This woman can’t drive because
she’s a woman?'" It is the power of a single story.
Now anywhere you go, if they know one thing about Saudi Arabia, they
know women cannot drive there. That means the government will be
pressured to do something.
Do you believe this will change soon?
I believe if women want to change their reality, it will change. If
women are silent, I don’t think anything will change. Rights are never
given. Rights are taken.
We’re also hoping for some new and young blood (in the Saudi
government). Sixty percent of us in this country are under 25, but the
people in power are double our age. This creates a huge gap between us.