The woman who defied Saudi's driving ban and put it on YouTube

Manal al-Sharif, honored for "creative dissent" at the Oslo Freedom Forum, says she hopes her story will inspire Saudi women.

Story highlights

  • Manal al-Sharif uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia in 2011
  • A religious edict bans women from driving in the conservative kingdom
  • Some women in the country are planning a driving demonstration on June 17
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif was taught in school that listening to music -- just like driving, showing her face in public or making a decision without consulting her male guardian -- was forbidden and sinful.
She believed so strongly in music's satanic powers that she burned many of her father's and brother's cassette tapes so they couldn't play them anymore.
Then one day in 2001, al-Sharif was about to dub over one of her brother's American tapes with a lecture on Islam when curiosity got the best of her. She let herself listen to a few bars. And the first song to touch her ears helped reroute the course of her life.
It was the Backstreet Boys' "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely."
"They had been telling us that music was Satan's flute -- was a path to adultery," she said in a recent presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference in Norway. "This song sounded so pure, so beautiful, so angelic. It can be anything but evil to me. And that day I realized how lonely I was in the world I isolated myself in."
Al-Sharif, now 33, gained international attention last summer after she uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving in a country where women are banned from doing so. Now she is the face of Saudi Arabia's Women2Drive movement, which plans to hold demonstrations on June 17 calling for women in that Middle Eastern country to be able to do something that's downright banal everywhere else in the world: drive themselves around town in an automobile.
While driving is technically not illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the early '90s, banned the practice. A statement from the Ministry of Interior backed up the decree.
Al-Sharif's action followed a November 6, 1990, demonstration in which women in Riyadh, the capital, drove without permission. Since her protest, small groups of women periodically have staged what The New York Times termed "random acts of women driving" to stand up for their rights.
Al-Sharif follows in that tradition, but she has caused much more of an uproar.
But, for her, it all started simply.
The divorced mother of one says she likes to make yearly challenges to herself around her birthday, April 25. One year, she went sky diving. In 2011, she wanted to drive. So in May last year, an acquaintance filmed al-Sharif while she drove through the streets of Khobar wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses but not hiding her face. "We want to change the country," she said in the video, according to a translation posted on YouTube. "A woman, during an emergency, what's she going to do? God forbid her husband's with her and he has a heart attack. ..."
"Not all of us live luxurious lives -- are spoiled like queens and have drivers," she said, in reference to the fact that many women have to pay for drivers to get around town.
Al-Sharif's act of defiance did not go unnoticed. The next day, police detained her. She was held for nine days without being charged, she said, and then released after considerable international pressure, much of it coming from the Twitter hashtag #Women2Drive and corresponding pages on Facebook. The next month, on June 17, dozens of women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel and drove to protest the ban, according to news reports.
One year later, the Women2Drive campaign is planning to have a second go of it.
The group again is encouraging Saudi women to go out and drive on June 17. Amnesty International has collected thousands of portraits of people who support the movement and plans to send them to the Saudi royal family, said Cristina Finch, the U.S. chapter's policy and advocacy director for women's human rights. And al-Sharif said demonstrations are expected to take place at Saudi embassies around the world.
Al-Sharif is so concerned about her family's safety that she doesn't plan to drive on June 17. "That would endanger my family, not only me."
But the campaign isn't really about driving, she said. Driving, in one sense, is a stand-in for other issues. Women in Saudi Arabia won't be allowed to vote or hold public office until 2015. They can't get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who usually is the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender.
Al-Sharif also hopes driving is a starting point -- that it will empower silent women.
"When women break that taboo and they're not afraid to drive that car by herself -- that's it," she said. "Now she has the guts to speak up for herself and take action."
In essence, the Women2Drive campaign is asking women of Saudi Arabia to go through some of the same transformations al-Sharif did.
In addition to her Backstreet Boys moment, al-Sharif has been subject to several dramatic turning points in her life. In a moderate family, she was the Islamic extremist, she said, supporting jihadists of the 1980s, including Osama bin Laden. Af