Which brings me to chapter two: driving for freedom. In this chapter, the inspiration was the Arab Spring—for me as well as for so many of my generation. I left my doctor’s clinic at 9 p.m. one night and couldn’t find a ride home. A car kept following me, and the men in it almost kidnapped me. The next day at work, I complained to my colleague how frustrating it was that even though I had an international driver’s license from traveling overseas, I was not allowed to drive at home because I was a woman. He said the simplest thing: “But there is no law banning you from driving.” A fatwa was a fatwa. Not a law. That plain truth ignited everything. It was June 2011, and a group of women, Saudis all, decided to start a movement: Drive Your Own Life.
It was to be a very straightforward campaign, using social media and calling on women to come out and drive on June 17. We encouraged only women with an international driver’s license to participate, as we didn’t want to cause accidents. That day, I recorded a video of myself driving. I used my face, my voice, my real name. I was determined to speak for myself. I had once been ashamed of who I was, a mere woman, but not anymore. I posted the video on YouTube, and it got 700,000 views on the first day.
Clearly, I was not alone. On June 17, some 100 brave women drove. The streets of Riyadh were packed with police cars, and religious police SUVs were posted on every corner of the city. But not one of the women who drove was arrested. We had broken the taboo on driving.
The next day, I was arrested and sent to jail for nine days. Riots broke out across Saudi Arabia, and people were divided into two camps: One called for my trial and a flogging in a public place. They called me a whore, an outcast, licentious, immoral, rebellious, disobedient, Westernized, a traitor, and a double agent to boot. Pages sprang up on Facebook to denounce me, claiming that men would take their igals, cords Arab men wear on their heads, and thrash any woman who dared break the taboo and drive. Women shot back, “We will throw shoes at you.” So it was an all-out fight between the sexes.
I didn’t realize until after I was released from prison how many people had been inspired by a simple act that many women do every single day. The support that rallied around the world led to my release.
This is not about driving a car. It is about being in the driver’s seat of our destiny. I now say that I can measure the impact we made by how harsh the attacks were. It’s this simple: We’ve started a movement in Saudi Arabia. We call it the Saudi Woman’s Spring.
We believe in full citizenship for women, because a child cannot be free if his mother is not free. A husband cannot be free if his wife is not free. Parents are not free if their daughters are not free. Society is nothing if its women are nothing.
Freedom starts from within.
I am free. But I have to admit that when I go home to Saudi Arabia, it’s not the same for everyone. The struggle has just begun.
I don’t know how long it will last, and I don’t know how it will end. But I do know that a drenching rain begins with a single drop. And eventually there are flowers.
Manal al-Sharif now lives in Dubai with her second husband, who is Brazilian. She can see her seven-year-old child from her first marriage only during weekend visits to Saudi Arabia.