This month Manal al-Sharif was planning to return to Saudi Arabia, the country of her birth, to drive freely down the main streets on her own, when a ban on women driving is lifted.
However, as the historic date of 24 June drew closer Manal received death threats while six other prominent human rights activists have been detained in Saudi Arabian prisons.
She decided it is safer for her to stay in Australia where she now lives. “I think I can be a stronger human rights advocate outside of Saudi Arabia where my voice can be heard around the world. They would lock me up again if I returned,” she said in a recent interview.
Manal has been part of a movement in the Saudi Kingdom advocating for women’s rights and the right to drive a car without a male chaperone. Her memoir Daring to Drive also gives us rare personal insights into everyday life for women in the country.
The book describes her strict commitment to Islam in her younger years and how that slowly changed. Manal graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science focussed on computer science. She then secured a position as an information security consultant, one of the few women to do so, at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil company. It was from this point in time that she sought fearless ways to break through taboos. It was not easy, as the opening paragraph shows.
‘The secret police came for me at 2 in the morning. As soon as I heard the words Dhahran Police Station, I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.’
Manal spent a week in a cockroach infested prison for driving a car. She did not commit a traffic offence, but the police told her she ‘broke orf’ – a tradition, custom or practice.
When I interviewed Manal at the recent Perth Writers Week, she still seemed a little surprised that her book has become a best seller around the world. Manal has also been recognised with the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Award at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.
‘I have always wanted to tell my story. I am a Muslim girl born in Mecca and now I am an activist. I did not know my story would be of interest,’ she told me.
I can assure you it is… I highly recommend her memoir.