My story really is simple. I found myself in a challenge. I was a Saudi woman, living in Saudi Arabia. I was a single mom, I was working as an engineer paying my rent, I had a driver’s license and I had a car. However, I could only drive it inside the gated community where I used to live.
One day I had to go to the clinic in the city and I couldn’t find a driver to take me back home so I walked in the streets and I almost got kidnapped. We are talking about somebody who is an engineer, someone who is professional. It was very humiliating to me that cars were chasing me and people were calling me names and one guy, he pulled down the window and it’s like an invitation to go with him. So I was treated very badly and I was crying in the street like a kid.
I talked to my colleague the next day. I was so angry and he said there is no law that prevents you from driving. I said, what do you mean, women can’t drive. He said, no there is no law and he sent me the traffic code. That day, I spend the night reading the traffic code line by line. He was right.
It’s always women who pay the highest price. I grew up to be a good Muslim. We went through so much preaching in schools. You have to be fully covered, you have to walk next to the wall, you cannot wear pants, you cannot make your hairstyle the Western way, you cannot say “Merry Christmas” to non-Muslims.
“YOUR WORLD GROWS AS BIG AS YOUR MIND GROWS.”
Winston Churchill once said: Fear is a reaction, courage is a decision. So I took a decision. If you know my country, as a woman in Saudi Arabia I have to cover my face, I cannot use my voice, I cannot sit with men and talk to you like this. I would always be at the back doors. And they would see me through a TV. Secured. So, we are invisible as women in my country. But sometimes your destiny calls you.
When you listen to that calling, I think, and you act upon it, that is when you take the decision. That is really important. What you consider courageous is stupid for someone else. When people ask me how I found my courage, I answer that I didn’t even think of it as courageous. I just felt like I needed to take an action.
Coming from a society where you cannot speak your mind, and then pay a high prize for being yourself, the most courageous thing I did in my life was to break the chains within me and be myself and love who I am. That I’m different than anyone else. I think that was the most difficult thing. And I think it is also courage to face situations that really challenge you and you just try to be open and to observe. It takes a while for you to go back and really change your mind. It doesn’t happen right away.
I think it is important for our kids to give them these environments where they are really open to be who they are, to speak for themselves, and to accept if other people speak totally different than them because we are individuals. I think that’s courage, to allow people to be who they are and to be who you are. That’s really courageous.
Manal al-Sharif is one of the most important voices of the women’s rights movement in the Middle East. In May 2011, the multi-award-winning women’s rights activist got behind the wheel in the streets of Khobar City to protest the royal ban on driving a car imposed on women in Saudi Arabia. She released a video of the protest on YouTube and promptly got arrested. Her action inspired a movement for equality, which led the Saudi Royal Family to rethink their position so that finally, in June 2018, the ban on driving for women in Saudi Arabia was lifted.
The co-founder of the Women2Drive movement, CEO and founder of the Women2Hack Academy, provides personal insights into their fight against oppression and her quest for equality, told through her stories of fearless attempts to break through taboos. Manal al-Sharif wants to inspire people to stand up for their beliefs and drive change.
She was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum, TIME magazine named her one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”, and the United Nations Human Rights hailed her as “A Driving Force for Change”. Her bestseller “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening” was listed as number one book for the 2017 summer read by Oprah Magazine.