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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.