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

The change in my life started four years later, in 2000. That year, the Internet was introduced in Saudi Arabia. It was the first time I went online. Now, let me give you a picture of myself: As an extremist, I covered myself from head to toe. I had always followed that custom strictly. I loved drawing, but one day when they told us in school that it was sinful to draw portraits of animals or people, I felt I had to comply. I dutifully gathered all my paintings and drawings and burned them. Meanwhile, I found myself burning inside. This was not fair. I had learned as much from a computer. The Internet, you see, was the first door that allowed Arab youth to venture into the outside world. I was young, thirsty to learn about other people and other religions. I started communicating with people who held different opinions, and soon those conversations raised questions in my head. I began to realize how very small was the box I was living in. It looked all the smaller once I stepped out of it. Slowly, I started to lose my phobia of having my pure beliefs polluted.

Let me tell you another story. Do you remember the first time you listened to music? Do you remember your very first song? I do. I was 21 years old. It was the first time I had ever allowed myself to listen to music. I remember the song: It was “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” by the Backstreet Boys.

Maybe it will help you to understand if I tell you that I used to burn my brother’s cassettes in the oven. I was that extreme. And then I listened to that song.

They had told us that music was Satan’s flute, a path to adultery, a door to sin. But the song I heard sounded so pure, so beautiful, so angelic. It could be anything but evil to me. It was then that I realized how lonely I was in my isolated little world.

Another important moment for me was 9/11, a watershed for so many people of my generation. The extremists said 9/11 was God’s punishment to Americans for what they had done to us over the years.

I was confused about which side to take. I had been brought up to hate any non-Muslim or anyone who didn’t practice Islam as we viewed it. But when I watched the breaking news that night, I saw a man throwing himself from one of the World Trade Center towers. He was falling, straight down, escaping the fire.

That night I couldn’t sleep. The image was in my head, and it was ringing a bell. Something is wrong, it was telling me. No religion on earth can be this bloody, this cruel, this merciless.

Al Qaeda later announced its responsibility for the attacks. My heroes were no more than horrifying, bloody monsters. It was the turning point of my life.

After 9/11, Saudi Arabia faced a rash of domestic terrorist attacks. The interesting outcome? A few months later, for the first time, authorities started issuing identification papers to women. Even though an appointed male needed to give his permission, we were finally being recognized as citizens in our own country.

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