Manal al-Sharif and her son
Credit: Rita Henley Jensen

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (WOMENSENEWS) — With her life torn apart by the events of the past year, it’s not clear whether Manal al-Sharif will be able to keep leading the push by Saudi women to drive.

Al-Sharif posted Tuesday an open petition to King Abdullah to end the ban on women driving. “It is our hope that you take into consideration our campaign I Will Drive My Own Car to encourage women who have obtained driving licenses from neighboring countries to forgo their male drivers and start driving themselves when they need to.”

The soft plea is a far cry from the buoyant protests last year on June 17, when more than 100 Saudi women and their male supporters drove cars publicly.

To continue her leadership on behalf of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif risks being jailed again and further death threats, she made clear during a recent interview here.

Last week, al-Sharif was unable to join four other Arab women in receiving a prestigious Vital Voices Leadership Award in Washington, D.C. Vital Voices was founded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1997, when Clinton was the first lady.

“The main reason for not being in #vvlead was for my family safety after receiving death threats from insane people,” al-Sharif wrote in a Tweet using the event’s hash tag.

A year after she defied this nation’s religious prohibition against women driving, al-Sharif is jobless, facing intense death threats and worried about going broke.

Yet she is far from broken.

“I always tell my mother,” she recently wrote in her blog, “they might handcuff me and send me behind jail bars, but I will never accept them putting cuffs on my mind. They can break my bones mom, but they can never break my soul.”

Broadened Agenda

Al-Sharif and her right-to-drive allies have broadened their agenda in the past year and raised the stakes. Now these activists see their goal as full citizenship for Saudi women and ending the system of male guardianship over their every daily movement and decision.

The nation’s powerful Shura Council, a religious body, has publicized a study by a local university professor finding that allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia would lead to higher rates of divorce, prostitution and drug abuse. The claims were reported widely by Saudi and international news media.

Unbowed, al-Sharif filed a suit in November against the General Directorate of Traffic Police for not issuing her a driver’s license. A second female driver also sued four months later and the cases were referred to an unnamed special committee in the Ministry of Interior.

Both suits were announced in February and the movement’s name was changed to My Right to Dignity.

Al-Sharif became the center of international attention in May 2011 when she posted a video on YouTube of her driving a car in Saudi Arabia. The following month, she was a key organizer of a June 17 protest when more than 100 women and male supporters drove cars publicly. In January 2012 she was a featured speaker at a Cairo conference for Arabic women who had used social media tools to foment social uprisings.

This May, al-Sharif accepted the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. Her 17-minute speech recounting the history of Saudi Arabia’s repression of women was posted on YouTube. The speech included the details of her being arrested the previous May for driving. She also recounted growing up during Saudi’s transition to control by Islamic extremists.

“I was taught that as a woman I am only Awra (sinful to expose),” she said. “My face was Awra, my voice was Awra, even my name was Awra. I started covering fully top to toe in black when I was 10 years old . . .We were faceless, voiceless and nameless; we were the invisible women,” she said in her speech.

Portrayed as a Traitor

Some YouTube users have downloaded the original video from the Oslo Freedom Forum’s YouTube channel and re-posted copies with misleading subtitles and commentary, portraying her as a traitor to Saudi Arabia and an enemy of Islam, Pedro Pizano of the Human Rights Foundation wrote on the Huffington Post June 6. Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi recently issued a fatwa declaring al-Sharif a “hypocrite,” Pizano wrote.

Al-Sharif says she is now the target of a new onslaught of thousands of insults; online and in print news media. Some messages threaten sexual assault and death.

She also sustained enormous financial punishment for going to Oslo.

Until April, al-Sharif was one of two women working in Saudi’s Aramco’s information protection management division, a crucial high-tech job in the world’s largest oil company, which is owned by the Saudi government and produces 90 percent of the nation’s revenue.

During the months between the driving protests and her speech, Aramco denied three requests for time off from her job to speak at international conferences. In April she asked again, this time for four days off to go to Oslo. Her immediate supervisors approved, but not the higher ups.

“Whether you like it or not, your name is associated with us and we don’t want your name to be associated with us,” the executive director of her division explained, al-Sharif said.

If she were fired, she knew she would lose severance pay and an interest-free home loan for employees with five years or more of service. With those two things on the line, al-Sharif resigned.

While she was in Oslo she learned that Aramco had withdrawn approval for the home loan. So now she’s lost her job and her home loan. She’s also lost the one-bedroom Aramco-owned apartment in the spare-no-expense compound where she had been living with her 6-year-old son.

She got her home-loan deposit back and received her severance pay as well. But with no job or housing in sight, her future is uncertain.

More Liberal Town

Dhahran is a vast company town that stretches over a manicured desert for miles and hosts 11,000 Aramco employees and their families. The rules of life are generally more liberal here than in the rest of the country. With winding streets, brick homes and manicured shrubbery, Dhaharn is reminiscent of the 1970s U.S. suburb. Like a suburb, it includes an elementary school, a golf course, shopping, riding stables, a swimming pool, and even what would be forbidden elsewhere: a movie theater. Women can drive inside the town limits.

Which is how it all began for al-Sharif. In April of last year, at about 9 p.m., she was heading home from a doctor’s appointment in a nearby town al-Khobar. She used her cell phone to call taxis but none were available. She called her brother, but his cell phone was turned off. She began to walk.

Al-Sharif’s voice still rises in anger and fear as she describes what took place. Slender and of average height, she was harassed by male drivers. One in particular followed her, and even turned into parking areas to wait for her to catch up. She was terrified she was about to be kidnapped. After a half hour, she found a taxi and hurried home.

After she recounted the event to her coworkers the next day, one informed her that there was no law in Saudi Arabia saying women could not drive.

“I said to myself, I have a car and a driver’s license. Why can’t I drive outside of Aramco?” she said.

Shortly after, she received a Facebook message from a Saudi woman in the area tossing out the idea of organizing a protest of the driving ban.

A movement was born at what turned out to be a high personal price.

Media Celebrity

After driving on her own a couple of times and winning widespread YouTube and news media celebrity, al-Sharif got behind the wheel with her brother, his wife and her son in the car. She was stopped by traffic police, held for six hours and released. A few hours later, at 2 a.m., she was arrested at home by the religious police, interrogated for almost six hours before she was sent to jail for nine days.

“Calls to send me to a trial were roaring. There were even calls to flog me in a public place to make me an example to other women. I was called all names in the book for that simple act: whore, outcast, licentious, immoral, rebellious, disobedient, Iran agenda, Westernized, traitor, double agent, etc.,” al-Sharif said.

Her brother and his wife, harassed for their connection to her, left Saudi Arabia.

Her relationships at work quickly soured. She went from a rising star in the technical information security field to a data entry clerk.

More than 100 women and their male supporters drove on June 17. One was stopped and issued a ticket for driving without a license and released. Two women were later prosecuted; one was sentenced to 10 lashes. She too has fled. The outcome for the other is not known.

Al-Sharif was invited by Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek-Daily Beast, to appear in March at a splashy annual New York conference, the Women in the World Summit. Her request for time off to accept the honor was one of the three denied. In April, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2012.

“Saudi women will get their rights when they want, they just don’t realize it yet,” al-Sharif wrote in a June e-mail, amid the barrage of threats that dissuaded her from going to Washington, D.C., to receive her Vital Voices Leadership Award.

“The movement is the first drop that starts the rain,” she said, “but without more aware women who believe and are willing to pay the price, and without civil society organization to embrace this movement, the struggle will stay for long.”

Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews. She was part of an International Reporting Project delegation of U.S. editors visiting Saudi Arabia.

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