Manal Al-Sharif has campaigned endlessly to get full citizenship for Saudi women, even getting arrested along the way. But with the Crown Prince changing the rules, the activist has hope for the future.
In May 2011, Manal Al-Sharif got into the driving seat of a car. With her brother beside her and her son Aboudi in the back seat, she drove through the city of Khobar. However, there was one problem – in Saudi Arabia, women were forbidden to drive.
Al-Sharif was arrested and spent nine days in prison. Her act of rebellion for her #Women2Drive campaign was part of a much bigger mission for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She received threats and calls to be publicly lashed. “But everyone knows that story,” stresses Al-Sharif during our interview (she now resides in Sydney), refusing to go over old news. She is assertive, sharp, and has no time for procrastination: “It’s more important to talk about the future.” With Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud lifting the ban on women driving, she has won one battle, but there’s still a long way to go.
“What excites me the most about the Crown Prince is that he is younger than me,” says a hopeful Al-Sharif, who was born in 1979. “He is 34. The vast majority of Saudis are under the age of 40. Finally, we have a young leader who understands why we cannot live in the 18th century. What’s interesting about his vision is that he wants to raise the percentage of women in the workforce from 22% to 30%. This is such a positive movement. He is building a path to bigger things, including making women full citizens, which is what I’ve been striving for my whole life.”
In an article for Time magazine, in which Al-Sharif wrote the cover story about the Crown Prince, she described his impact as “cautious optimism” and declared enthusiasm at his Vision 2030 plan to modernize the Kingdom. She wrote: “I want to see the changes lead to political reforms, even a constitutional monarchy and full freedom of expression. If MBS would do that, my hopes for a better Saudi Arabia are bigger than the sky.”
Having faced a backlash herself for daring to modernize the Kingdom, Al-Sharif is all too aware of the challenges the prince will face. “Since they are trying to introduce reforms in a short period of time, there is huge resistance toward the prince from radicals,” she says, predicting that the situation will get worse before it gets better. “Hopefully, he has the right advisors and team. It’s a sensitive situation, but he will figure it out. It’s not rainbows and butterflies, but we should lead by giving hope. Things are changing.”
While the international media has focused on the lifting of the driving ban, Al-Sharif points out that the decision to allow women into football stadiums was just as significant, bringing to attention a way of life for Saudi women that outsiders never knew existed.
“It changed the mentality toward women. Maybe outsiders didn’t realize how private a society it was here,” she explains. “Allowing women to attend events like football is huge.” The next step, hopefully, is to get more women in the workplace, which would lead to a stronger economy and ultimately a stronger Saudi. By giving women more opportunities to work and drive, they get the chance to live their lives fully. “They can coordinate their lives – drive to work, take the kids to the park,” she explains. “It will change not only for women, but for their husbands, for society, for the economy.”
More than 42% of the population of 33.5 million are women – that’s half of society deprived of their basic rights, which means Al-Sharif’s campaigning days are far from over. For now, she is focusing on getting women in Saudi recognized as full citizens. “This means abolishing male guardianship, allowing women to pass their nationality to their children, and criminalizing female genital mutilation.” Once this is achieved, she will continue to persist: “You never finish campaigning. Even when you get your rights, you need to exercise them otherwise they will be taken away from you when you start taking them for granted.”
The next generation of Saudis will benefit the most from the reforms. “They will grow up differently to me,” enthuses Al-Sharif. This group includes Manal’s first son, Aboudi, 13, from her first husband. She now lives in Sydney with her son Daniel Hamza,who is nearly four, from her second marriage. What does a mother who was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world teach her boys? “I encourage them to read, to explore, and to learn right from wrong. The best thing you can do for your children is show them by action,” she says. “I always tell them to trust their hearts. It is about giving them the space to think for themselves. That’s what people in my country need – the chance to think for ourselves. We are always told what to do and what to believe in.”
While women in Saudi are her priority, Al-Sharif is a champion for all, with some choice advice: “Never care about what others say about you. Just be you. The day you are yourself, you are free. Once you know who you are, you will be unstoppable.”