There are rare and special moments in history, when a revolution gains a poster child. A person who embodies the values of the movement so well, that she becomes synonymous with the mission. Yesterday was a Red Letter Day in the Feminist calendar. Women in Saudi Arabia, finally, earned the right to drive a car on the roads of their own country. This victory, the one that came more than half a century after a woman has traveled to Space, is a huge milestone in human evolution. There is a Braveheart, who with her defiant resolve, had set the ball rolling, way back in 2011. Manal Al Sharif, the amazing woman who dared to steer in a Kingdom of Men, has made Feminism look relevant again. Her act of valor in the face of inhuman sexism, has made her a role model for generations to come. She is the Goddess of Strength, personified. Here’s her story:
Born in a Cage
Manal Al Sharif was born in 1979, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her instruction, and environment had impressed on her the need for female subjugation. Even after she had graduated as a Computer Scientist, she remained a ‘woman spoken for’, in her infamous nation. In her memoir, she mentions believing that ‘music is sin’, and burning cassette tapes, in congruence with her faith. Oppressors often find fault with music, because it is a potion of emotional strength, that can break the strongest of barriers.
Manal happened to accidentally listen to Show me the Meaning of Being Lonely, a pop favorite of the era, and something snapped. Through music, she realized, for the first time, the tyranny of her so-called masters. In a quiet way, the seeds of her activism were sown that day.
Tragedy often precedes heroism. Manal was baptized by fire. She went through the torment of an abusive marriage. Imagine being under the guardianship of a man, who takes the liberty to assault you whimsically. Imagine not being able to travel, shop, or go to the bank, without the legal permission of your abuser! The trials made her resolve stronger. Her first son was born in 2005. Even her divorce was without her consent. She was informed to leave the premises. In a divorce, Saudi fathers retain all legal custody of children and all rights to the marital home. They’re granted full physical custody for girls at age 7 and often for boys at age 9. So, Manal lost her right to mother her child.
The Act of Defiance
In 2011, something happened, that changed the course of Manal’s life, and culminated in the historic decision of yesterday. Manal was walking on the road, being constantly teased and harassed by car drivers. She was a woman with a job, with a car, with a driving license (acquired at UAE), and yet, she was at the mercy of the male drivers of KSA. Manal decided that day that she wanted to drive.
In May 2011, an acquaintance filmed her, as she drove defiantly into a busy grocery store parking arena.
Soon after, all hell broke loose. She was arrested, and spent a week in the prison. She was threatened by clerics, and harassed out of her job. Her son started being bullied at school. Death threats ensued. In that situation, she had no option but to leave the country for Dubai. Her biggest pain- she had to separate from her only child at the time – 6 year old Aboudi.
In fact, Saudi courts denied her son to visit her in Dubai. The premise of this decision was a 10th-century Islamic text. The ruling mentioned “risk of the child dying en route on such a dangerous distance.” This ‘distance’ took an hour by plane. To this date, Manal rues that her two children (her son from her second marriage was born in 2014) did not get a chance to be together as siblings. Her act of defiance took the ultimate sacrifice that a mother can be asked to give.
Building a Future of Hope
None of the violations could dissuade Manal from continuing to voice dissent. She started Women2Drive campaign on social media, she campaigned for immigrant women locked in prisons on flimsy grounds. She spoke up on the lack of elections for the Shura Council, and the murder of Lama al-Ghamdi.
She believes that yesterday’s judgment was only a very small step towards the actual goal – the abolishment of Guardianship of women in Saudi Arabia.
The belief that an adult, independent woman, needs a male guardian’s permission to travel, or even get a job, is ridiculous.
But, Manal knows that the ability and freedom of movement that comes with yesterdays’s decision, will push the envelope forward.
Manal Al Sharif lost her son, her job, her country, and her people, because she dared to dissent. She knows that in her lifetime, Saudi Arabia would not be able to respect women’s rights in the same platform as men’s. And yet, the woman urges on. She has hope, will, and she is Daring to Drive. We thank Manal for her incredible life-force, and for providing women across the world a taller platform to stand up on.
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