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Why this Saudi activist says driving is the ultimate female emancipation

August 9, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
In 2011, Manal al-Sharif decided to drive. But for women in Saudi Arabia, what seems like a normal act of daily life is anything but. Jailed for nine days, her case sparked international outcry. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Sharif, an activist for women’s rights living outside her home country, to discuss her new book, “Daring to Drive.”
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Continuing our week of books, we take an intimate look at the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: In may 2011, Manal al-Sharif drove a car. That is remarkable only because it happened in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving and many other activities in what most of us would consider normal, daily life. She was arrested and spent nine days in prison, before an international outcry helped gain her release.

She’s continued her activism for women’s rights, now living outside her native country, and she’s written her story in the new book “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”

I want to ask you first about this idea of an awakening, because you write about yourself in your early life very much part of the system. When a group of women drove in 1990, and as a kind of a public protest, you scorned them.

MANAL AL-SHARIF, Author, “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening”: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But something happened to you.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Because we got the wrong story. They didn’t have a voice. We heard about them. We didn’t hear from them, until the moment of truth came to me in 2011, when I started my own campaign, and I got to know their story. They’re my inspiration.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see in the system? You refer to it as the guardianship system.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Yes. Yes.

The male guardianship system is the one — the source of all evil when it comes to women’s rights in my country, where I am 38, mother of two, and an engineer, but I’m still a minor. I’m legally minor. I need permission from a man to do anything in my life. And that man could be my father, my husband.

And it could even be my own son, if he is an adult.

JEFFREY BROWN: All this — this affects all parts of daily life.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Every single part of your life.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any space where you feel freedom or a freedom to act or move?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Things has been loosened now.

One of them is, for example, going to school. Now I don’t have to get permission to go to school or open a bank account. Imagine, these things I had to get permission to do before.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, driving became the …

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Symbol.

JEFFREY BROWN: The symbol, right?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why driving?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Nothing will emancipate women in my country like driving, because it gives them a sense of independence. It gives them a sense of liberty and freedom.

And that breaks all the things they have been learned and brainwashed with, that we are — we have to be — obedience to these unjust laws, and we’re weak, we cannot take decisions by our own. This will give independence to women. This is what I believe, at least.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that keeps the system in place, the system of the gender relations?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Two things, men prejudice, and women submissive. These two things need to be changed to change the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much is it changing? How strong is the movement?

I mean, I see even recently, in recent weeks, there have been some arrests of women for various kinds of behavior.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Yes. True, true.

There have been arrests for some of the leaders for this movement, which is good, by the way. That means they’re recognizing it’s influential and it’s making an impact.

The millennial generation, the Internet-native generation of women, are changing — they’re changing the rules of the game in Saudi Arabia. They’re outspoken. They’re fearless. They’re courageous. And they really don’t submit to the rules my generation submitted to.

And I do believe women have the key to change, if they break the wall of fear, if they challenge these unjust laws. And I have been told always respect the law. And I always say — I use the line from suffragettes. I say, I will respect laws that respect me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm. You’re quoting the suffragettes.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you clearly studied your history, women’s history.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that, for you, was — caused that change, I mean, of learning all this history and wanting to become part of it?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Do you know when I started? I have always been an activist, and I didn’t know. I have never read about the other feminists or activists.

But when you face so much backlash, so much hardship, so much pain, you seek relief in places, in history, stories that happened to the same people doing the same things that you’re doing.

So, I started watching movies about the women’s right movement — I mean, the movement to get the women vote in the U.S. I watched suffragettes. I read Rosa Parks’ book.

And I was amazed by the similarities between my story and them. And I’m studying how they changed the system by the nonviolence, the civil disobedience and nonviolent struggle.

And it’s amazing to me when I was watching these things. The civil rights movement itself, remove the black people, put Saudi women. This is exactly the situation in Saudi Arabia today.

JEFFREY BROWN: You go through the book through many experiences that you had of being in prison, of having to leave the country, having to leave…

MANAL AL-SHARIF: My own son.

JEFFREY BROWN: … your children behind from your former marriage.

Do you have regrets now? What is your life like now?

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Jeff, I do have a lot of regrets in my life. I think we are all — as humans, we do have regrets.

But the speaking up, I have never regretted that, because, if I didn’t speak up, I would lose myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Daring to Drive.”

Manal Al-Sharif, thank you very much.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Thank you.

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