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

There were no sports for women, no engineering schools. There was also, of course, no driving. And how could there be? We weren’t even allowed to have identity cards with photos, except for passports, which were only necessary to leave the country.

We were voiceless. We were faceless. We were nameless. And we were completely invisible.

Our lives had been stolen with a lie: We are doing this to protect you from the prying eyes of men, they told us. You deserve to be treated like a queen.

But during that time, something happened to show that not everyone was going along with this. On November 6, 1990, 47 courageous women emerged to challenge the ban on women driving. They went into the streets of Riyadh and drove. The women were detained, banned from leaving the country, and dismissed from their jobs. I remember hearing that news when I was a kid. We were told that those women were really bad. Afterward, there was a fatwa. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said that a woman driving was haram, forbidden in Islam. A television announcer said that the Minister of the Interior had warned that women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

For the next 22 years, we were not even supposed to talk about women driving, whether on television and news broadcasts or in magazines and newspapers.

So yet another taboo was created. The first had prevented us from talking about Juhayman; the second prevented us from talking about women driving.

But something else happened during that first chapter of my young life: the attack on Khobar Towers, a housing complex for foreign military personnel. The towers were bombed on June 25, 1996, and, according to the Saudi government, the attack had been carried out by Saudi Islamic militants, including many veterans of the Afghan War. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel had been killed and 372 more people of various nationalities injured.

I remember my mother gasping when she saw the pictures. “Juhayman is back,” she said.

I was only 17, and it surprises me now to recall it, but I had no sympathy for the dead. I was brainwashed. I had been brought up in a particular time; I was the product of a terrorist culture.

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