Excellent interview from today's Wall Street Journal with Manal al-Sharif by Sohrab Ahmari. A link to it is here, and the text pasted in below. Lovely portrait of Manal too.
New York - March 23, 2013
'You know when you have a bird, and it's been in a cage all its life? When
you open the cage door, it doesn't want to leave. It was that moment."
This is how Manal al-Sharif felt the first time she sat behind the wheel of a
car in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's taboo against women driving is only rarely
broken. To hear her recount the experience is as thrilling as it must have been
to sit in the passenger seat beside her. Well, almost.
Ms. Sharif says her moment of hesitation didn't last long. She pressed the
gas pedal and in an instant her Cadillac SUV rolled forward. She spent the next
hour circling the streets of Khobar, in the kingdom's eastern province, while a
friend used an iPhone camera to record the journey.
It was May 2011, when much of the Middle East was convulsed with popular
uprisings. Saudi women's-rights activists were stirring, too. They wondered if
the Arab Spring would mark the end of the kingdom's ban on women driving.
"Everyone around me was complaining about the ban but no one was doing
anything," Ms. Sharif says. "The Arab Spring was happening all around us, so
that inspired me to say, 'Let's call for an action instead of complaining.' "
The campaign started with a Facebook page urging Saudi women to drive on a
designated day, June 17, 2011. At first the page created great enthusiasm among
activists. But then critics began injecting fear on and off the page. "The
opponents were saying that 'there are wolves in the street, and they will rape
you if you drive,' " Ms. Sharif recalls. "There needed to be one person who
could break that wall, to make the others understand that 'it's OK, you can
drive in the street. No one will rape you.' "
Ms. Sharif resolved to bethat person, and the video she posted of herself driving around Khobar on May 17
became an instant YouTube hit. The news spread across Saudi media, too, and not
all of the reactions were positive. Ms. Sharif received threatening phone calls
and emails. "You have just opened the gates of hell on yourself," said an
Islamist cleric. "Your grave is waiting," read one email.
Aramco, the national oil company where she was working as a computer-security
consultant at the time, wasn't pleased, either. Ms. Sharif recalls that her
manager scolded her: "What the hell are you doing?" In response, Ms. Sharif
requested two weeks off. Before leaving on vacation, however, she wrote a
message to her boss on an office blackboard: "2011. Mark this year. It will
change every single rule that you know. You cannot lecture me about what I'm
It was a stunning act of defiance in a country that takes very seriously the
Quran's teaching: "Men are in charge of women." But less than a week after her
first outing, Ms. Sharif got behind the wheel again, this time accompanied by
her brother and his wife and child. "Where are the traffic police?" she recalls
asking her brother as she put pedal to the metal once more. A rumor had been
circulating that, since the driving ban isn't codified in law, the police
wouldn't confront female drivers. "I wanted to test this," she says.
The rumor was wrong. As she recounts, a traffic officer stopped the car, and
soon members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of
Vice, the Saudi morality police, surrounded the car. "Girl!" screamed one. "Get
out! We don't allow women to drive!" Ms. Sharif and her brother were arrested
and detained for six hours, during which time she stood her ground.
"Sir, what law did I break?" she recalls repeatedly asking her interrogators.
"You didn't break any law," they'd say. "You violated orf"—custom.
The siblings were released but Ms. Sharif was rearrested a day later. She was
detained for over a week and released only after her father personally pleaded
with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for a pardon and pledged to forbid his
daughter ever to drive again in the kingdom. Even now, recounting the story at
New York's JFK Airport while she waits to board a flight to Dubai, Ms. Sharif's
voice trembles with anger: "I was just driving a car!"
Manal al-Sharif was born in the holy city of Mecca to a family of
"conservative" but "regular Muslims," as she puts it. "Dad would listen to
music," she says. "He would wait for new albums by Umm Kulthum," a widely
popular Egyptian pop singer. "My aunt used to wear golden bracelets, and she
used to show her hair under her pink hijab."
The family's moderate attitudes were remnants of a way of life that came
under severe attack in 1979, the year Ms. Sharif was born. It was a turbulent
moment in the region. In Iran, Shiite radicals deposed a socially permissive
autocracy and began building a repressive Islamic theocracy. In November 1979 in
Saudi Arabia, a band of Sunni jihadis took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca,
killing hundreds of worshipers and security forces. It took two weeks and the
help of French commandos to break the siege.
The incident, infidel rescuers included, was a huge embarrassment for the
reigning al-Saud dynasty, whose monarchs style themselves as "Custodians of the
Two Holy Mosques." To prevent future jihadi attacks, "the government did
everything it could to please the fundamentalists," Ms. Sharif says. "It gave
them control over education and women. So women were removed from all public
life in Saudi Arabia, and there is now complete separation between the genders."
The kingdom had always been deeply religious. Yet it was only after the 1979
siege that the al-Saud began promoting radical Islam at home and abroad as a way
of staving off challenges to their own legitimacy. Thus was born what former
Wall Street Journal publisher and author Karen Elliott House identifies in her
book "On Saudi Arabia" as "Islam Inc."—the symbiosis of clerical obscurantism
and oil riches that keeps the al-Saud in power.
One result is a society where women make up just 12% of the workforce and own
5% of businesses, a country where 15 young girls were doomed to perish in a 2002
schoolhouse fire after the morality police prevented their rescue because the
students were improperly dressed.
Ms. Sharif is in many ways a product of this system, including the public
schools she attended in the 1980s and '90s. "They brainwashed kids," she
recalls. "They told us, 'This is Islam, and it is our time to rule the world
again.' So you were brought up in an atmosphere that made you go for extremism,
for hatred of the other, and to fear people who are conspiring against
As she grew older, Ms. Sharif started questioning the authorities who would
"use the word of God to control people who are like my family." She came to see
the painful impact of Islamist ideology on women. Her aunt, for example, once
fond of colorful clothes and jewelry, was cowed. She would "listen to these
fundamentalist lectures and cry, saying 'it's haram to show your face.'
She cried and changed everything about herself."
Then there was the driving ban. Ms. Sharif came to despise the fact that
"we're proudly known as the country where women can't drive." In 1990, an
earlier generation of women tried, and failed, to challenge the ban. During the
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, about 40 Saudi women organized a "drive-in" protest.
They argued that amid a national emergency, when their male guardians might not
be available, Saudi women must be permitted to drive.
Predictably, the 1990 drive-ins enraged the religious establishment. "When I
was a kid they sent brochures all around the country, with the names of the
women and their house numbers, encouraging people to call them and tell them to
come back to Islam," Ms. Sharif says. "They said these women had sex with
American troops. They said they took off their hijabs and burned
Why persist today in the face of still-vicious opposition? Because the
campaign to overturn the ban is about more than driving. "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."
Ms. Sharif has paid a price for living her own life. After she gave a speech
about her activism at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, where she was awarded the
inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, she and her family came under
renewed pressure from Islamists. Things got worse when video of the speech went
viral on YouTube.
"They said no one will embrace Islam after watching this speech, because what
I showed is a violent religion. But what I showed was my personal story," she
says, adding that it is "an insult to Islam, to any religion," to suggest that
it can be undermined by a personal story.
Ms. Sharif was pushed out of her job in May 2012 and has since relocated to
Dubai, where she lives with her Brazilian husband, Rafael. The couple met in
2010 when they were both working for Aramco. She needed permission from Saudi
Arabia's interior minister to marry a non-Saudi, says Ms. Sharif, who has a
7-year-old son from a previous marriage. "It's your personal life, and they get
their noses into it even at that level."
The minister rejected Ms. Sharif's request to marry a foreigner, and her
ex-husband bars her son from traveling outside the kingdom with her, so she can
see him only by visiting from Dubai every weekend. "It's the worst thing flying
back to Saudi Arabia. I'm on the surveillance list, so every time I go, they
stop me and they take more information. They monitor my travel."
The al-Saud rulers, she says, are cracking down on dissidents out of fear
that the Arab Spring's reverberations might spread to the kingdom. In early
March, two founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association
received long jail sentences for, among other things, starting an unlicensed
human-rights organization. The arrests, she says are meant "to shush the others,
because they talk about the same things we talk about: constitutional monarchy,
political parties, having political rights. So they take these people and make
an example out of them."
The sentences were handed down less than a week after new Secretary of State
John Kerry visited the kingdom. His visit was a disappointment for Ms. Sharif
and others who share her outlook. "He just praised Saudi Arabia for appointing
30 women to the unelected Shura council," she says of Mr. Kerry. "It's a fake
body anyway, a powerless body. You can't praise something that's not tangible,
that's merely a cosmetic change." If American officials aren't willing to
criticize the Saudis on their rights record, she says, "at least they shouldn't
As our interview ends, one question remains: Has Ms. Sharif gotten behind the
wheel of a car in the kingdom since the heady days of her campaign? "Yes, I
drove again," she says. "I'm a normal woman, a normal person, and I just want to
This bird won't be returning to its cage anytime soon.
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.