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Allow me to start this talk with a question to everyone. You know that all over the world, people fight for their freedom, fight for their rights. Some battle oppressive governments. Others battle oppressive societies. Which battle do you think is harder? Allow me to try to answer this question in the few coming minutes.
Let me take you back two years ago in my life. It was the bedtime of my son, Aboody. He was five at the time. After finishing his bedtime rituals, he looked at me and he asked a question: "Mommy, are we bad people?"
I've never been afraid to tell Aboody anything. I've been always a proud woman of my achievements. But those questioning eyes of my son were my moment of truth, when it all came together. You see, I'm a Saudi woman who had been put in jail for driving a car in a country where women are not supposed to drive cars. Just for giving me his car keys, my own brother was detained twice, and he was harassed to the point he had to quit his job as a geologist, leave the country with his wife and two-year-old son. My father had to sit in a Friday sermon listening to the imam condemning women drivers and calling them prostitutes amongst tons of worshippers, some of them our friends and family of my own father. I was faced with an organized defamation campaign in the local media combined with false rumors shared in family gatherings, in the streets and in schools. It all hit me. It came into focus that those kids did not mean to be rude to my son. They were just influenced by the adults around them. And it wasn't about me, and it wasn't a punishment for taking the wheel and driving a few miles. It was a punishment for daring to challenge the society's rules.
But my story goes beyond this moment of truth of mine. Allow me to give you a briefing about my story. It was May, 2011, and I was complaining to a work colleague about the harassments I had to face trying to find a ride back home, although I have a car and an international driver's license. As long as I've known, women in Saudi Arabia have been always complaining about the ban, but it's been 20 years since anyone tried to do anything about it, a whole generation ago.
I looked it up, and he was right. There wasn't an actual law in Saudi Arabia. It was just a custom and traditions that are enshrined in rigid religious fatwas and imposed on women. That realization ignited the idea of June 17, where we encouraged women to take the wheel and go drive. It was a few weeks later, we started receiving all these "Man wolves will rape you if you go and drive." A courageous woman, her name is Najla Hariri, she's a Saudi woman in the city of Jeddah, she drove a car and she announced but she didn't record a video. We needed proof.
So I drove. I posted a video on YouTube. And to my surprise, it got hundreds of thousands of views the first day. What happened next, of course? I started receiving threats to be killed, raped, just to stop this campaign.
The Saudi authorities remained very quiet. That really creeped us out. I was in the campaign with other Saudi women and even men activists. We wanted to know how the authorities would respond on the actual day, June 17, when women go out and drive. So this time I asked my brother to come with me and drive by a police car. It went fast. We were arrested, signed a pledge not to drive again, released. Arrested again, he was sent to detention for one day, and I was sent to jail. I wasn't sure why I was sent there, because I didn't face any charges in the interrogation. But what I was sure of was my innocence. I didn't break a law, and I kept my abaya — it's a black cloak we wear in Saudi Arabia before we leave the house — and my fellow prisoners kept asking me to take it off, but I was so sure of my innocence, I kept saying, "No, I'm leaving today." Outside the jail, the whole country went into a frenzy, some attacking me badly, and others supportive and even collecting signatures in a petition to be sent to the king to release me. I was released after nine days.
There was this official study that was presented to the Shura Council -- it's the consultative council appointed by the king in Saudi Arabia — and it was done by a local professor, a university professor. He claims it's done based on a UNESCO study. And the study states, the percentage of rape, adultery, illegitimate children, even drug abuse, prostitution in countries where women drive is higher than countries where women don't drive.
I know, I was like this, I was shocked. I was like, "We are the last country in the world where women don't drive." So if you look at the map of the world, that only leaves two countries: Saudi Arabia, and the other society is the rest of the world.
This system is based on ultra-conservative traditions and customs that deal with women as if they are inferior and they need a guardian to protect them, so they need to take permission from this guardian, whether verbal or written, all their lives. We are minors until the day we die. And it becomes worse when it's enshrined in religious fatwas based on wrong interpretation of the sharia law, or the religious laws. What's worst, when they become codified as laws in the system, and when women themselves believe in their inferiority, and they even fight those who try to question these rules.
So for me, it wasn't only about these attacks I had to face. It was about living two totally different perceptions of my personality, of my person -- the villain back in my home country, and the hero outside.
Just to tell you, two stories happened in the last two years. One of them is when I was in jail. I'm pretty sure when I was in jail, everyone saw titles in the international media something like this during these nine days I was in jail.
I was asked last year to give a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. I was surrounded by this love and the support of people around me, and they looked at me as an inspiration. At the same time, I flew back to my home country, they hated that speech so much. The way they called it: a betrayal to the Saudi country and the Saudi people, and they even started a hashtag called #OsloTraitor on Twitter. Some 10,000 tweets were written in that hashtag, while the opposite hashtag, #OsloHero, there was like a handful of tweets written. They even started a poll. More than 13,000 voters answered this poll: whether they considered me a traitor or not after that speech. Ninety percent said yes, she's a traitor. So it's these two totally different perceptions of my personality.
For me, I'm a proud Saudi woman, and I do love my country, and because I love my country, I'm doing this. Because I believe a society will not be free if the women of that society are not free. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. (Applause)
But you learn lessons from these things that happen to you. I learned to be always there. The first thing, I got out of jail, of course after I took a shower, I went online, I opened my Twitter account and my Facebook page, and I've been always very respectful to those people who are opining to me. I would listen to what they say, and I would never defend myself with words only. I would use actions. When they said I should withdraw from the campaign, I filed the first lawsuit against the general directorate of traffic police for not issuing me a driver's license. There are a lot of people also -- very big support, like those 3,000 people who signed the petition to release me. We sent a petition to the Shura Council in favor of lifting the ban on Saudi women, and there were, like, 3,500 citizens who believed in that and they signed that petition. There were people like that, I just showed some examples, who are amazing, who are believing in women's rights in Saudi Arabia, and trying, and they are also facing a lot of hate because of speaking up and voicing their views.
Saudi Arabia today is taking small steps toward enhancing women's rights. The Shura Council that's appointed by the king, by royal decree of King Abdullah, last year there were 30 women assigned to that Council, like 20 percent. 20 percent of the Council. (Applause) The same time, finally, that Council, after rejecting our petition four times for women driving, they finally accepted it last February. (Applause) After being sent to jail or sentenced lashing, or sent to a trial, the spokesperson of the traffic police said, we will only issue traffic violation for women drivers. The Grand Mufti, who is the head of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, he said, it's not recommended for women to drive. It used to be haram, forbidden, by the previous Grand Mufti.
So I have no clue, really, how I became an activist. And I don't know how I became one now. But all I know, and all I'm sure of, in the future when someone asks me my story, I will say, "I'm proud to be amongst those women who lifted the ban, fought the ban, and celebrated everyone's freedom."
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There's no actual law against women driving in Saudi Arabia. But it's forbidden. Two years ago, Manal al-Sharif decided to encourage women to drive by doing so -- and filming herself for YouTube. Hear her story of what happened next.
Manal al-Sharif advocates for women’s right to drive, male guardianship annulment, and family protection in Saudi Arabia. Full bio »