Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi Arabian woman who sparked a protest movement when she defied the ban on women drivers with a YouTube video of herself behind the wheel, has been called the Rosa Parks of her country.
But don't call her an activist.
Al-Sharif, honored Friday in Beverly Hills, Calif., at a Women In The World luncheon hosted by former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown, said she resents the label. The annual event, begun in 2009, aims at “telling unknown stories of the women who live behind the lines of the news.”
“To me, if you see something wrong, you have to speak up," al-Sharif said in an interview with Brown on stage. "Labeling people who speak up against horrible things makes other people not want to be labeled,” she explained. “So I’m totally against the word. I’m just a human being who would not accept being wronged.”
Al-Sharif, a columnist, blogger and women’s rights advocate, told the luncheon audience of mostly female media and entertainment figures the harrowing story of her 2011 YouTube video.
“I almost got kidnapped trying to find a taxi in the street," she said. "In Saudi Arabia, it’s not normal for a woman to walk in the street alone, and I don’t cover my face, so I am an open target. I was walking at 9 p.m. trying to find a taxi for a ride home, and someone followed me and I had to throw a stone at this guy to protect myself. That was very defining for me. So many things lead to other things,” including the video.
Saudi law bans all women from driving, so her video ignited a storm of conversation -- not just in her country, but all over the world.
“I had no clue when I posted that video online that what happened would happen," she said. "It was part of a movement called Women2Drive. I had no clue it would be a trending video that day on YouTube and that it would put me in jail,” al-Sharif said.
“It got a lot of talk. I remember one guy from Australia commented on the video asking why everyone was watching this video! Because it was me speaking in Arabic and it hadn’t been translated. It was just me driving.
"The government stayed very quiet while the whole country went really crazy over this video. ‘How could she dare to drive and post it online?’ they said. I was very anxious about what the government was going to do.”
While waiting, al-Sharif got into a car with her brother and drove past a police car. “They called the religious police, I was taken into interrogation and then they let me go. But they came again to my house at 2 a.m. and took me to jail,” she said. She spent the next nine days in prison.
“It was shocking even to the people who were against me -- those who hated me for driving. Because even though I had broken the law, I was a mother and they were really shocked and mad at the government for putting me in jail. So they started a petition. The whole world knew about it. The news traveled to Japan, Malaysia, India, you name it. Everyone knew that I was the woman arrested for driving a car.”
Al-Sharif explained that Saudi clerics believe allowing women to drive will lead to broken marriages, low birth rates and adultery.
“Nothing pisses off Saudi men or religious people like a woman behind the driving wheel,” she said. “It was very interesting because you can talk about women’s rights all your life, but nothing will bring attention to the issue like this video a woman driving. One religious opinionist said a woman driving will damage her ovaries. So now it’s not just religious -- it’s scientific!”
The mythology of women in the Saudi culture goes much deeper than the ban on driving. “In Saudi Arabia, they always tell us we are queens. We are pistachios. You know the nut? Like something that is protected. So even if you have a very good education, restraints are put on women. It’s like saying, 'I know you have feet, God gave you feet, but I’m going to cut them off and put you in a wheelchair -- and wherever you want to go, I will take you,'” said al-Sharif.
“I went to a technology conference in Germany and there were these beautiful, model-like women standing there in front of the products. I asked a question and she had no clue what the product was. She had to call someone from the back to explain it to me. To me, that’s using a woman as an object. To me, that’s totally wrong.”
She continued: “In Saudi Arabia, it’s the opposite side. It’s demonizing the woman. Her body is demonized. She is told not to use her body. Both ways are totally extreme. There should be some moderate way.”
Al-Sharif’s defiance has inspired change in her country. More women are now driving.
“If we keep quiet, nothing will change," al-Sharif said. "And usually the regimes are very comfortable unless you shake the ground under them. What you do is keep shaking the ground.”
Tina Brown and Women In The World will celebrate its fifth anniversary in April in New York City. Learn more here.