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Q & A: The Saudi woman who dared to drive

June 29, 2012 |  4:30 am

Manal Sharif has been jailed, insulted and threatened. Her enemies faked her death, in a hamhanded bid to make an example of her. This year, she says, she was forced out of her job. Her life has been turned upside down by a crime that isn’t even a crime -- driving in her country, Saudi Arabia.

"There’s a famous saying in Arabic: When you oppress people, you make them heroes," she said. "I couldn’t understand why I was in jail. But that’s what created all this."

Driving isn’t actually illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, as Sharif is quick to point out. But because Muslim clerics have declared it forbidden, the traffic department refuses to grant women licenses. Sharif is among a group of women who have contested the ban.

Last year, after millions of people viewed an online video of her driving, Sharif was detained twice by police who insisted that she stop and demanded to know who was behind the campaign. She was released after an outcry but continued to face death threats and other attacks.

The furor also made her famous, feted as one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine and awarded a prize in Oslo for "creative dissent" -- a prize that ultimately cost Sharif her job when her employer told her she couldn’t leave the country to accept it, she said.

She did anyway, leaving her jobless after her trip to Europe this spring. But there is plenty for Sharif to do: The campaign that began as a plea to allow women to drive has expanded to contest all kinds of sexism in Saudi Arabia, where women must obtain permission from men to work, travel or study.

Activists are pushing for women to drive again Friday; an earlier driving protest was delayed after the death of the Saudi crown prince. The Times talked to Sharif about her quest in the year since she and her fellow activists urged Saudi women to get behind the wheel.

Why do you think driving has been so sensitive in Saudi Arabia, even more so than women voting?

There are people who will fight back because it's a financial loss for them. If you want to get a driver, you have to go to an office and give them money to bring you a driver from India or Indonesia. It's a business for them. We’ve been told they get 800 million riyals every year. So businessmen will do all kinds of campaigns to discredit us and say bad things about us. It's like a war.

Then there are the religious people. If they lose their grip on controlling women, they lose the grip on the whole society. We believe these smaller subjects are used to make people not discuss the more important thing, which is the male guardianship system for women. Being treated as a second-class citizen. All of this is the tip of the iceberg. There are children, 10 years old, and they drive because their moms or sisters cannot drive! A woman has to have her driver go with her to the office, go home, come pick her up, go home. This means more crowded streets and more pollution.

Do women defy the ban in their daily lives?

Sometimes it's really urgent and a woman has to drive, like the kid is dying. But usually the women do not know how. It's a very foreign act. My friend, her dad died in front of her waiting for the ambulance because she couldn’t drive. She said, "If I could drive I would have saved my father." Even if a woman wants to do it and knows how, your neighbors see you driving and call the religious police.

What has happened since the protests last year?

We’ve been talking to officials, writing articles, campaigning, trying to teach women to drive. I filed the first lawsuit against the traffic police for not issuing me a license. We believe the driving campaign rocked the boat. People talk about it now. The taboo has opened. There’s also been so much international attention.

I never understood it, why people are so interested in women driving. But when I met Kathryn Cameron Porter, president of the Leadership Council for Human Rights, in the United States, she said, "Manal, you find women who didn’t care because we take everything for granted, and when they see this, they say, 'What? This woman can’t drive because she’s a woman?'" It is the power of a single story.

Now anywhere you go, if they know one thing about Saudi Arabia, they know women cannot drive there. That means the government will be pressured to do something.

Do you believe this will change soon?

I believe if women want to change their reality, it will change. If women are silent, I don’t think anything will change. Rights are never given. Rights are taken.

We’re also hoping for some new and young blood (in the Saudi government). Sixty percent of us in this country are under 25, but the people in power are double our age. This creates a huge gap between us.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: Manal Sharif speaks at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

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