In the US, a milestone that most people look forward to is receiving their driver’s license. Driving represents the freedom to go wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go. Imagine being forbidden to drive by law, leaving you completely dependent on your male relatives, who are able to drive. In Saudi Arabia, this is a daily reality.
Women are banned from operating motor vehicles. This means that all women, regardless of their age, must depend on their male relatives anytime they need to go somewhere. This lack of freedom and agency leaves Saudi women without the ability to lead independent and successful careers, forcing them to be dependent on their families and/or husbands.
One Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, is hoping to change this. Years ago, al-Sharif was on her way home from a doctor’s appointment and was unable to find a ride. None of her family members were able to pick her up and she was struggling to find a taxi. She was terrified of the men driving by and harassing her. Some men even followed her. Al-Sharif did not understand why she was forced into that situation.
She told The Times “Why do I have to be humiliated? Why can’t I drive, when I have a car and a license? Why do I have to ask colleagues to give me a ride, or my brother, or look for a driver to drive my own car?” Following this experience, al-Sharif made history by filming a video of herself driving and posting it on YouTube. As a result of this, she spent a week in prison, and eventually moved with her family to the US to escape the harassment her video had inspired.
Al-Sharif is now devoted to fighting for the rights of Saudi women, especially after experiencing the difference between how women are treated in America versus Saudi Arabia. She is especially focused on driving.
“I believe that when women drive in my country, that will liberate them. We don’t have pedestrianized cities, there’s no proper public transportation. Driving is the key,” she said. Al-Sharif’s recognition of the importance of driving is directly in line with her feelings about required male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, which further places women below their male family members, in some cases even their sons.
She continued, “It means that women are independent, they can leave the house, they don’t have to wait for a male guardian. Guardianship is the source of all evil when it comes to binding women. I’m 38 years old, I have two sons, I pay my own bills, but legally I’m a minor. I can’t do anything. I have to go to my father to get my passport. It’s outrageous. Once women can drive, all this evil will fall.”
Al-Sharif has recently written a book, 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. You cannot punish me because you cannot control yourself.”
Al-Sharif’s bold and unflinching fight for her rights and the rights of all Saudi women is truly inspiring. She is pushing for a huge step in the direction of freedom for Saudi women. With more outspoken women like Al-Sharif, and through increased support and awareness around the world, Saudi women may soon receive the freedom they deserve.
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