LEWISTON — There's a New England connection to the woman who received worldwide attention in 2011 for being being jailed for driving in Saudi Arabia, a country where it is illegal for women to drive.
Activist Manal al-Sharif spoke to a packed Bates College audience Wednesday night. She's been named by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people of 2012, written about by the New York Times, CNN and the Wall Street Journal, been given international awards for freedom and called "fearless."
Al-Sharif said she started the “Women2Drive” movement after living and working in Nashua, N.H., for a year.
The right for Saudi Arabian women to drive is symbolic, she explained, for the guardianship system that exists in Saudi Arabia, where women are considered “minors” all of their lives. Women must ask permission to do anything, even leaving the house, from their male “guardians” — fathers, husbands or, for widows, even their sons.
When she came to Nashua in 2009 on a work exchange program, the computer engineer discovered there was no public transportation. She needed a car, but first needed a license.
She signed up for drivers ed, learning how to drive with teenagers. Beaming, al-Sharif showed off her drivers license to the audience to applause. After living like an American for a year, she returned to her country and became frustrated by not being mobile.
Saudi women travel the world, work as doctors and save lives, yet they need a man for transportation. “Something is wrong here,” she said.
Instead of complaining, she acted.
In May of 2011, on Facebook she called on women to drive. She got support and threats that women who drove would be raped. Women were scared. In June, al-Sharif took the lead saying, “'I'll show you, I'll drive.” She drove her car for 10 minutes as a friend shot video. “I had no clue what would happen after that,” she said.
The video was posted on YouTube and became a worldwide hit. She was arrested and jailed for nine days.
News of the arrest went out on Twitter. “It was really amazing what social media created,” she said. “It created a global support system.”
It was the time of Arab Spring. The world reacted in anger to a woman jailed for simply driving.
“People around the world called for my release. This small act created a huge wave.” Al-Sharif showed a picture of a Romanian woman protesting with a sign, “Cars for women, camels for men.”
Al-Sharif's family went to the king and apologized for her behavior. She was released. Al-Sharif suspects it was the pressure from social media that contributed to her release.
In the United States, people use social media to meet old friends or keep in touch with family. “In our world, we use it to start revolutions.”
Saudi conservatives slammed her and the idea of women driving. “This is my favorite,” al-Sharif said, showing a newspaper article with a headline of a cleric warning if women were allowed to drive, the virginity of unmarried women would be lost. He said there'd be illegitimate children and more divorce.
Supporters of the “Women2Drive” campaign posted the story online. “It was all over the news," al-Sharif said. "The whole world was mocking them.”
Eventually, she ended up losing her job and had to move. Today she lives in Dubai. When she goes back to Saudi Arabia to visit her son (her ex-husband has custody), she gets detained at security. When public speaking, “it's balancing when to say so much,” she said. “Sometimes you say something huge and you disappear for two months.”
Saudi women still cannot drive. They are still “minors” of their fathers, husbands and sons. But a change is underway, al-Sharif said.
She's written against the guardianship system, expecting flack. That didn't happen. Some men agreed, saying they were sick of their woman depending on them for every single thing.
“It's changing, slowly,” al-Sharif said. “It's not going to happen today, but maybe it will happen in my daughter's generation, if I ever have one.”
Her son will hear bad things about what she's done, she said. Someday he'll ask her about it. “When he comes that day, I will have an answer,” al-Sharif said.
But if her son ever becomes her guardian, “I'll kick his butt,” she said to laughter.