A Driving Force for Change: Manal al-Sharif

Manal al-Sharif is a Saudi Arabian activist who was a key figure in the 2011 campaign to give the kingdom’s women the right to drive.

Manal al-Sharif is a Saudi Arabian activist who was a key figure in the 2011 campaign to give the kingdom’s women the right to drive.

Al-Sharif’s campaigning was crucial in bringing about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent reforms, including the overturning of the driving ban. Prior to 2017, Saudi women were not allowed to drive motor vehicles.

The first major resistance to this ban was staged in 1990, when dozens of women drove cars in protest across Riyadh. Most of the protesters were arrested, imprisoned for one day and had their passports confiscated — some even lost their jobs. As a result, it would be nearly two decades before any other large-scale actions were taken in protest of the driving ban.

The next big push to overturn the driving ban came in 2007 when the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia submitted a 1,100-signature-strong petition, demanding the right to drive to King Abdullah. Nothing came of this effort.

The following year, Wajeha al-Huwaider, one of the co-founders of the Saudi women’s rights association, posted a video clip of her driving on YouTube during International Women’s Day. Although the clip gained international attention, the movement to extend the right to drive to Saudi women failed to get much traction domestically.

However, it was not until the Arab Uprisings of 2011 that the movement to overturn the Saudi driving ban began to gain momentum. In the wake of the protests, al-Sharif and a group of fellow activists started a Facebook campaign, #Women2Drive and began calling for women to begin driving on June 17, 2011.

During the 2011 campaign, al-Sharif posted a survey online, asking women, “Do you want to drive on June 17?” Eight-four percent of those who responded to the poll answered yes. But when al-Sharif realized that only a tiny minority of those women (11 percent, according to her findings in a related poll) knew how to drive, she began setting up a driving school with volunteer teachers.

In late May of 2011, al-Sharif enlisted al-Huwaider’s help to create a video of al-Sharif driving a car. The video, which she uploaded to Facebook, garnered over 600,000 views within the four days that followed. As a result of this action, al-Sharif was arrested on May 21, 2011. Although she was released just six hours later, she was rearrested the following day and charged with “inciting women to drive” and “rallying public opinion.” Al-Sharif was released on bail a week later. One of the conditions of her release was that she not speak to the media.

While in prison, al-Sharif met a number of foreign worker women who had been imprisoned for small debts that they were unable to repay. So, upon her release from prison on May 30, 2011, al-Sharif began a Twitter campaign to release such women from the Dammam women’s prison. According to al-Sharif, most of the imprisoned women were domestic workers, primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Al-Sharif, who earned a B.S. in computing from King Abdelaziz University, was working as an information security consultant for Saudi Aramco at this time. However, her political activism created difficulties for her at work, and she ultimately quit in 2012 following a dispute about her proposed trip to Norway to accept the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent.

Upon leaving Saudi Aramco, al-Sharif began working as a columnist for Alhayat, a Saudi daily. Her first book, titled Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, came out with Simon & Schuster in 2017.

And, finally, on June 24, 2018, the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was lifted. The optimism surrounding the historic decree and the hopes for a new Saudi Arabia were tempered, however, by a string of arrests of high-profile women’s rights activists in the kingdom. Al-Sharif was quick to denounce these arrests, arguing in a communiqueé published on her website that “the recent arrests dilute and tarnish the progress that has been made in lifting the ban,” especially since – in her words – “in an absolute monarchy, dissidents are the true patriots.”

In addition to being awarded the Oslo Freedom Forum’s Václav Havel Prize in 2012, al-Sharif was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by TIME magazine and “A Driving Force for Change” by the United Nations Human Right Commission. She has been at the center of major policy and debate surrounding women’s rights for nearly a decade and will undoubtedly continue to fearlessly break taboos in her quest for equality and positive social change.