A women’s rights activist who was jailed after she bravely defied Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban has opened up about her ordeal.
Manal Al-Sharif, who now lives in Sydney, spent nine days behind bars after being charged with ‘driving while female’ after she uploaded a YouTube video of herself travelling through the streets of Khobar in May 2011.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving; but the ban did not deter the now 38-year-old from taking control over her life.
However, the protest that gained global attention came with consequences — she lost custody of her then five-year-old son, now aged 11.
“I was jailed because I challenged the ban.
“I lost custody of my son, my job and my home (marriage), but I just have to accept the consequences; otherwise, women don’t move forward.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life I regret, but I didn’t choose to be arrested for driving. I was tired of accepting these awkward rules, so I wanted to prove a point,” she said.
Ms Al-Sharif found herself serving time in prison for nine days in 2011.
“I just couldn’t believe the charges laid against me. I was charged with ‘driving while female.’ I was put in jail with criminals.
“I remember the prison guard asking me why I was there. She just couldn’t believe they put me in jail for driving,” she told the Daily Mail.
The young mother said she was faced with relentless backlash after the video attracted more than 700,000 views within 24 hours.
“The video was trending inside Saudi Arabia. I was getting phone calls; my family was receiving death threats and more girls were being discouraged to go out.
“Driving a car as a woman, you really stir the whole country. I was called a whore; and people accused me of corrupting Muslims. They called me all kinds of names.
“People were calling me crazy and saying I should be locked up in a mental hospital,” she recalled.
But despite holding a driver’s license, Ms Al-Sharif said women were still not allowed to drive simply because they were ‘legally minors’ in the country.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a highly educated woman, you still need a male guardian to give you permission to do things,” she explained.
“The main challenge is women are treated like minors. Once you reach 18, you own your life, no one should own your life. But in Saudi Arabia, (adult) women are still considered as a minor.
She explained that Saudi women were depicted as ‘queens’ so they were ‘protected by the kingdom of men’.
“That’s why we can’t drive because we need male guidance to do anything on our behalf,” she explained.
“I come from a very private society where we live in closed windows, high walls and women are covered up. It’s very difficult for girls and women in Saudi Arabia to do anything without the permission from a male guardian.”
Ms Al-Sharif explained that when she got married to her second husband, she needed to get permission from her father and a ‘special permission from the government’ because she wasn’t allowed to marry a non-Saudi man.
“Until this day, I still didn’t get the second permission,” she said.
“We couldn’t get married in Dubai either, because I wasn’t allowed to marry a non-Saudi without permission. We had to go through a civil marriage from a law court in Canada.”
Ms Al-Sharif has recently published her memoir called Daring To Drive, in which she writes: “I’m proud of my face. I will not cover it.
“If it bothers you, don’t look. If you are seduced by merely looking at it, that is your problem.