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Why this female Saudi activist has been losing hope for her country’s future

Manal al-Sharif inspired Saudi Arabian women to defy their country's ban on female drivers by posting a video of herself behind the wheel. The act saw her jailed but was ultimately influential in the 2018 lifting of the ban. Now based in Australia, al-Sharif is raising awareness of female activists detained by Saudi authorities. Amna Nawaz talks to her about the state of Saudi women’s rights.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, women in Saudi Arabia started demanding the right to drive years before they won it in June of last year.

    One of the most prominent voices belonged to activist Manal al-Sharif. Earlier today, she demonstrated in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, taking on the so-called guardian, or wali, system, which requires a woman to have a male relative approve even basic decisions.

    Our Amna Nawaz spoke to al-Sharif before today's protest about the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2011, when Manal al-Sharif posted this video of herself behind the wheel of a car, she sparked a revolution in Saudi Arabia, where women were forbidden to drive.

    Al-Sharif inspired other women to buck the Saudi ban and post videos of themselves driving, too. But her protest landed her in jail for nine days, and she was only released after her father appealed directly to the king.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    At 2:00 a.m., the secret police came to my house, and they arrested me from my house. I was sent to jail with one line in my paper. It was driving while female.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, lifted the ban in 2018, part of an effort to paint himself as a reformer, after he started running most of Saudi's affairs of state.

    Last year, he toured the United States, receiving warm welcomes from the White House.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a great honor to have the crown prince with us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Silicon Valley, meeting the CEOs of Google and Apple.

    But the crown prince's reality is in stark contrast to the modern image he sought to present to the world. The country's gruesome tradition of executions by beheading has continued under his watch, including 37 this week.

    And it continues to imprison female activists, including eight this month. The CIA also assessed that bin Salman ordered the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. And the Saudis are still leading a coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen's government against Iran-backed rebels.

    The United Nations calls the war in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 20 million civilians left starving, and tens of thousands dead and injured.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    They call me a traitor.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Manal al-Sharif is still fighting the Saudi government for her rights and those of her fellow Saudi dissidents. Now based in Australia, she just wrapped a weeklong coast-to-coast driving tour of the United States, covering new and different terrain.

  • Woman:

    We are part of the pace car here at Long Beach Grand Prix in California.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And paying homage along the way to Rosa Parks in Birmingham, Alabama. Al-Sharif says the black civil rights struggle in America is informing and inspiring her own fight for civil rights in Saudi Arabia.

    Manal al-Sharif driving tour also took her to Phoenix, Houston, Charlotte, and New Orleans, where she drove her car in the city's pride parade.

    Fresh off that coast-to-coast tour, Manal al-Sharif joins me here in studio.

    Manal, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So that driving video that you first posted, that was eight years ago.

    Last year, the driving ban was overturned, right? So why are you still protesting?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Because I promised my son, when the driving ban is lifted, I will drive with him cross-country in Saudi Arabia.

    Unfortunately, the women who fought with me against this ban were all sent to jail. And that made me postpone my driving with my son. I have seen a lot of women being tortured, and Jamal Khashoggi happened, and all these asylum seekers running away from Saudi Arabia.

    I thought it's time to take the same drive and do it cross-country here in the U.S., because of the so important relationship between the two governments, the Saudi Arabian government and the U.S. government. And I thought, the American voters need to know the violations of human rights, the same values they stand for here. They are our allies who've been violating them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, as we saw in the setup piece there, there was a lot of hope when Mohammed bin Salman came into power, he was going to be a reformer, things were going to change.

    What has changed for women in Saudi Arabia under him?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Believe me, I was one of the supporters. And I — a lot of activists went against me when I openly supported his Vision 2030 vision.

    But when there were a lot of red flags happening, like the Yemen war, the embargo in Qatar, but when the war moved from outside to inside, when they started arresting clerics, scholars, influentials, and then they started arresting the women activists, and then the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, so these things made us lose the hope.

    We were really desperate for change in my country. But, right now, what I'm seeing is a group of people who have absolute power. And they think they can enslave and oppress people in this way, in an unprecedented way in my country.

    And it doesn't come from hate. It really comes from love from my country. I'm always proud of who I am. And I'm proud of my roots and my background. And I think Saudi people deserve better than this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned some of your fellow female activists who are still in prison just today.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you in touch with them? What do you know about the conditions under which they're being held?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    So, I'm in touch with some of the families. Not all families can speak, only the ones who are abroad. Most of them who are in Saudi Arabia, they're on a travel ban.

    And the two, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, who were released, and they're facing trial, Aziza al-Yousef, in the same week they released her, they took her son, Salah al-Haidar.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Into custody. He was imprisoned.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Yes. And they're banned from using the Internet or speaking to anyone, not even a phone call you can make with them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You yourself were imprisoned for a number of days back in 2011.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What were conditions like for you?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    It wasn't like what I have heard. Like, I wasn't tortured. It was nine days. And my father met the king, and I was released by a pardon. Like, in the time of King Abdullah, I wasn't harassed by the government.

    No one ever talked to me again or put my family on ban, travel ban. So what are we seeing now is really something that we, as Saudis, we haven't experienced before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Saudi Embassy spokesman here tweeted he was aware of your U.S. tour, and also said that you would be welcome at the embassy here to come and meet with the ambassador. Would you accept that invitation?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    I'm actually happy that there is a woman who is there. And…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the new ambassador.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Yes. And the gratitude goes to those women in jail today for having the first female ambassador in our history. And I'm happy for her, and I congratulate her.

    But my problem is, I don't trust to go inside any of the emphasis of my government after Jamal Khashoggi. And I used to write with him in The Washington Post. I used to write for The Washington Post. That's the first thing.

    The second thing is, he tweeted today, this morning, in Arabic, that I don't represent these detainees and I have nothing to do with their cases. And for that, I have no say in demanding their release.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That was the embassy spokesman talking about people who are still in prison.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Yes, the same — the same — Fahad Nazer, the same guy who tweeted in English the tweet, completely different statement in Arabic, that, I don't represent them.

    But the good news is they acknowledge there is a drive and they acknowledge that there is a movement pushing back and really creating a spotlight on these serious violations for human rights in Saudi Arabia today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you think it will take for there to be change?

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    To change the political system.

    We still live in an absolute monarchy, when one man has absolute power. And we still treat the government as someone we serve. The government serves you. We need a constitutional monarchy. And we need the law. We need the rule of the law.

    And that doesn't happen today in Libya. All these detainees, they have no access to legal advice. They don't know their charges. They have been taken away from their homes without warrant. They remain in jail without a trial, the trial being postponed.

    So, we want the rule of law. Right now, it's a rule of one man.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Manal Al-Sharif, thank you very much for being here today.

  • Manal al-Sharif:

    Thank you.

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