She was the plucky young woman who, in splendid defiance of one of the world’s most repressive societies, steered a car through the streets of the city of Khobar, railing as she went against the misogyny of laws that make it illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive.
Manal al-Sharif was arrested for her pains and spent nine days in jail on suspicion of a crime called “incitement to public disorder”. She emerged, almost a year ago, to worldwide fame — an eight-minute film of her protest drive, shot on a friend’s smartphone, spread across YouTube, in various iterations, at a rate of a million hits per day.
Since then, Sharif has used her notoriety as the “Saudi Girl Driving” to pursue radical change. She has led mass “protest drives”, filed lawsuits against her nation’s chauvinistic traffic laws, and recently started a feminist pressure group, My Right to Dignity, which aims to undermine the conservative excesses of an Islamic state which treats women as second-class citizens.
Her struggle hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. For all the plaudits (she recently joined Barack Obama and Pippa Middleton in Time magazine’s list of the world’s “100 most influential” people), she is subjected to daily death threats, and fears for the safety of her parents and her six-year-old son. “I measure the impact I make by how harsh the attacks are,” she says. “The harsher the attacks, the better I am doing.”
A few months ago, Saudi “sources” convinced several media outlets, among them the Agence France Presse news agency, that Sharif had died in a car crash. “The idea was to say ‘see, God is punishing her; women really shouldn’t drive!’,” she recalls. She soon rang her family, before informing her 90,000 Twitter followers that rumours of her demise were “rubbish”.
This month, Sharif has suffered the ultimate sanction for any single mother — the loss of her livelihood. The oil company Aramco, her employer for more than a decade, told her she was to be sacked for daring to stick her head above the political parapet.
We meet in Norway, where she has just given a barnstorming speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of global human rights activists. A film of her extraordinarily moving presentation, which received an ovation, hit YouTube last week. A quarter of a million people have already watched.
At 33, she now finds herself jobless and homeless (her flat was owned by Aramco). In a hotel lobby, she angrily rattles through the daily indignities of life in a country which, despite her university education and high-flying CV, forces her to live according to a set of ultra-conservative Islamic protocols which hark back to the Dark Ages.
The lot of Saudi women is shaped by Wahhabism, the most unbending form of the Muslim faith, she explains. The Koran is effectively her nation’s constitution and gender apartheid is a cultural obsession.
“I’m a single mother and I’m 33 but I can’t even rent my own apartment without getting my father to sign a piece of paper saying he gives permission,” she says. “I went to renew my passport the other day and they told me to come back with my male guardian. Wherever we go, whatever we achieve, we are the property of a man.”
A Saudi woman who is beaten or raped by her husband and goes to the police must bring that husband along to formally “identify” her, she adds. Saudi women are forbidden from dancing or playing competitive sports and are not due to get the vote until 2015.
Born in 1979, Sharif grew up in Mecca, the holiest of the holy cities. Her working-class home had separate entrances for men and women. As a child, she remembers burning her brother’s pop cassettes in the oven after mullahs told her that music came from the “Satan’s flute”. Later, at university in Jeddah, her class of 60 women was taught computer science in a segregated campus, by professors lecturing from remote locations via closed-circuit television. In keeping with convention, she wore a vast black niqab and long gloves.
Her life changed, almost overnight, on 9/11, orchestrated by her countryman Osama bin Laden. “The extremists told us it was God’s punishment to America,” she recalls. But on the news that evening, she was sickened by footage of office workers jumping from the twin towers. “I said to myself, ‘something is wrong. There is no religion on earth that can accept such mercilessness, such cruelty.’”
Sharif began questioning literalist aspects of her faith. “I realised it is impossible to live with the rules they give Saudi women,” she says. “Just impossible. You trying to do everything by the book but you can never stay pure.”
After leaving university, she landed a job in information security for Aramco, which at the time was US-owned. It was a lucky break: of Saudi Arabia’s five million women graduates, only about 5,00,000 are employed. At 24, she got engaged to a co-worker and at 25 they married.
It didn’t work out. While Sharif is reluctant to dwell on the details, she says that the kingdom’s staggeringly high divorce rate of 60 per cent is rooted in gender inequality. “My father’s generation of Saudi men are more liberal than the men of my generation,” she says. “But with women it’s the opposite. Women are much less conservative than the men now, and that leads to clashes.”
After her divorce, she spent a year in family courts. She won custody of her son but has no legal recourse to maintenance. The experience further convinced her that Saudi women must stand up for their rights. “I cannot make him pay, and this is one of the things we are fighting for,” she says. “To have family courts and family laws which protect women and children from abuse.”
In 2009, Sharif’s employer sent her temporarily to its US office, in Boston. “I remember just thinking it was so incredibly normal,” she says. “There were no complications. I could go and look at apartments and sign a contract. I went to the bank, and opened an account.”
Most importantly, she drove a car. “I thought, ‘This is how life should be’.” Not long after returning home, Sharif took her car journey. It was the start of a campaign that she says will end only when women in Saudi Arabia become the equals of men. It is a tall order, but she is adamant that it can be done.
“You know what?” she tells people who ask the secret of her success. “They just messed with the wrong woman.”