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.

Inspiring Stories: Driving My Own Destiny in Saudi ArabiaAbduljalil Al-Nasser
My name is Manal al-Sharif.

I’m from Saudi Arabia. I want to tell you about two separate chapters of my life. Chapter one is the story of my generation; it begins the year I was born, 1979.

On November 20 of that year, there was a siege of Mecca, the holiest city in the world for Muslims. It was seized by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a militant Islamist, and some 400 of his men. The occupation lasted for two weeks. Saudi authorities had to use force—heavily armed force—to eject the occupiers and end the violation. They beheaded Juhayman and his men publicly.

Nevertheless, the authorities became very anxious. They feared another uprising. Saudi Arabia was newly formed and rapidly changing and had been adopting a new civil way of life. For rebel militants, such changes were against their beliefs, against Islam, and they wanted to stop them.

So, although the Saudi government had executed Juhayman, it began to abide by his doctrine. In order to prevent another uprising, extremists in power quickly moved to roll back liberties that had been tolerated in previous years. Like Juhayman, some ruling Saudis had long been upset about the gradual loosening of restrictions for women. In the weeks after the Mecca uprising, female announcers were removed from television. Pictures of women were banned. All possible female employment was narrowed to two fields: education and health care.

Activities that encouraged male-female contact were curbed: Music was banned; cinemas were closed; the separation between genders was strictly enforced everywhere. That separation became law, from public places to government offices, to banks, schools, even to our own houses. In time, each house in Saudi Arabia ended up having two entrances: one for men, one for women.

There was another sea change: Petrodollars began to pour into the extremists’ pockets. The extremists used that money to spread missionary teachers around the world, many of whom preached hatred of the infidel, dedication to global jihad, and a rejection of anyone who didn’t share their ideals.

Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or “the religious police,” was also given a free hand in society. In other words, the ruling authorities had beheaded a monster, but they had enshrined his ideology of hate.

Saudi authorities tried their best to put the story of the rebellion out of public memory, and so they moved to purge all articles and records from magazines and newspapers, hoping that history would be erased and that people would forget Juhayman.

But his memory remained. I remember one day, it was hajj time, and I was performing tawaf with my mother. This is a ritual in which you walk in circles around Kabah, the holiest Muslim shrine in Mecca. There was a hole in one of Kabah’s walls, and as we walked around, Mom pointed to it and said, “That’s a hole from a bullet, from the time of Juhayman.”

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