Inspiring Stories: Driving My Own Destiny in Saudi Arabia

Manal al-Sharif once bought into a Saudi Arabian system that said women should have no face, no name, no identity. Then came 9/11. One year later, she was fighting for women’s right to live in freedom.

Also in Reader's Digest Magazine July 2013

By Manal Al-Sharif from the Oslo Freedom Forum

Inspiring Stories: Driving My Own Destiny in Saudi ArabiaCourtesy Oslo Freedom Forum
Juhayman. The name itself brings terror to Muslims around the world. For me, that hole went beyond those walls. It went back in time; it was like a hole that we Saudis fill in and continue to fill in. And so we keep going backward in my country.

The 1980s went by, and the years after that brought the Afghan War and historic events in the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the extremists had become very powerful in Saudi Arabia, promoting their ideas and forcing everyone to abide by strict rules.

Leaflets, books, and cassettes calling for jihad in Afghanistan and insisting on ejecting all non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula were given out freely. I was one of the youths recruited to distribute them. A 22-year-old man was among those fighting for jihad. His name was Osama bin Laden. Such were the heroes of our time. In the days of sahwa—al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, or “the Islamic Awakening”—one of the main subjects of debate was women. I was taught that if I left home, I would be fully responsible for any evil that befell me, because men cannot be expected to control their instincts. I am the seductive fruit, they said, and I would seduce men in all my shapes and forms. So I was made to stay home.

For Saudi extremists I was awra. The word awra means a sinful thing, an intimate part of the body you should not show. It is against the law to disclose it. By the time I was ten, I was covering myself fully.

My face was awra, my voice was awra. Even my name was awra. Women cannot be called by name, so they are called “daughter of” a man’s name, “wife of” a husband, or “mother of” one of her sons.

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