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26 Feb 2018 12:40
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  •   Home > News > International

    Women in Saudi Arabia have a long way to go in order to be free, says Manal al-Sharif

    Saudi women last year celebrated a big win when they , now the woman behind the campaign says she'll celebrate on the day she's recognised as a citizen of her own country.


    Saudi women last year celebrated a big win when they were granted the right to drive, now the woman behind the campaign says she'll celebrate on the day she's recognised as a citizen of her own country.

    Manal al-Sharif was at the forefront of the Women2Drive campaign, which was run by rights activists who saw the ban as an emblem of the kingdom's repression of women.

    In 2011, she was arrested after a video appeared on social media showing her driving in the country.

    Growing up Ms Sharif was told her role in life as a woman was to stay at home, to be a mother and a wife.

    "My whole life was minimised and summarised in that role for me as a woman," she said.

    "The education I went through as a woman inside Saudi Arabia, as a girl growing up was really destructive."

    It was not until she travelled to Egypt with her mother to visit family that she suddenly saw another world, a world where Muslim women were allowed to do simple things — like drive a car.

    "They were just having normal life, sitting in restaurants together, talking," she said.

    "Mum was talking with her cousins, while I was deprived from talking to my male cousins.

    "So that was the first contradiction I faced growing up and in Saudi Arabia."

    Recognition as a citizen 'the next challenge'

    Western leaders and powerful figures have been watching developments in Saudi Arabia closely.

    And Ms Sharif said there was still much more work to be done before women could become "liberated".

    But she has learnt to celebrate the small victories, and said the right to drive campaign — which took 27 years — has helped to push the country towards bigger change.

    One change Ms Sharif remains hopeful for is the day that women such as herself will be acknowledged as a full citizen of their country.

    "I'm still not even recognised as a citizen. My son, I cannot pass my nationality, my passport to him," she said.

    "If I'm in jail, I cannot leave jail without my male guardian permission. I cannot leave the country without my male guardian.

    "So unless the country acknowledge me, names an age when I'm adult before law and acknowledges me as a citizen, then that's the day I would really celebrate."

    Ms Sharif said 80 per cent of Saudi Arabia was under the age of 40, and yet most of the leadership was over 80.

    And she said that younger generation were being sent overseas to study, exposing them to other countries and other governments.

    "So you have all these highly educated people coming back, they've lived abroad in functioning democracies and they go back and of course, they will push for change."

    The Saudi women revolution

    When Ms Sharif tried to get the attention of the media on issues such as the male guardianship system, or the lack of women's status within the family, it was impossible.

    So she used Women2Drive campaign was used as a symbol for all those issues.

    "Driving was really the one that gets the media attention to shed light on woman's status in Saudi Arabia," she said.

    "When a woman goes out and drives, everyone is watching — and then we just pitch in all the other issues that we want to discuss.

    "We call it the Saudi women revolution, or the pink revolution."

    The ban on women driving meant that for them to get anywhere not on foot, they had to have a male drive them.

    Saudi Arabia does not have public transportation, and so walking and driving are the only options to get around.

    The two options for women were to hire a male driver, or to depend on a male relative to drive them — even boys as young as nine years old.

    "It's a very strange situation when you are separated from the man all your life… but we are forced to be locked in a car with a complete stranger to drive us around," she said.

    "That contradiction creates a lot of discomfort and also sexual harassment — blackmailing the woman because she needs that man to drive her around, so he has access to her house, her number, her life."

    While many countries have some sort of anti-harassment laws, Saudi Arabia has long shied away from putting any in place.

    Last year it was reported that draft legislation for a bill against sexual harassment was stalled in the Shura Council.

    Members who opposed it argued that the law would encourage intermingling between genders, as well as allowing women to go out in more provocative attire.

    The law was passed by royal decree, but Ms Sharif said it remained "under discussion" and as such was not currently enforced.

    Ms Sharif has written a book, Daring to Drive, and will be speaking at the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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