Which is battle is harder to fight? A battle against an oppressive government, or one against an oppressive society? This was the question Saudi Arabian activist Manal al-Sharif asked the audience in the beginning of her talk. In Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif is an advocate for women’s right to drive, male guardianship annulment, and family protection.
In May 2011, Sharif did something unspeakable in her country that sent her to jail. She dared to drive a car. Before listening to her talk, I was unaware that women in Saudi Arabia were not permitted to drive. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to explicitly prohibit women from driving. Until around April of this year, women were not even allowed to ride bicycles in public. For many years, all modes of transportation for women have been greatly restricted.
The ironic thing is, there is no law explicitly stating women cannot drive. Upon discussion of this fact with a male co-worker, Sharif decided to take to the road in May. With the help of her brother, Sharif videoed her driving excursion and posted it to YouTube. As a result, she and her brother were arrested. Sharif remained in jail for 9 days with no legal charges against her. The police cited her for “disturbing the peace”. While in jail, polar reactions were occurring outside. Some people were extremely supportive and gathered signatures to set her free. On the other hand, some were calling her a traitor to their country, sending her threats, and calling for her to be flogged.
The part of her talk I found to be important was when she spoke about her son. (0:56)Sharif’s 5 year old son asked her one night, “Mommy are we bad people?” He told her some boys hit him at school, saying they saw his mother driving on Facebook, and that they both should be sent to jail. Sharif realized that this was not a punishment for driving a few miles, but rather for daring to challenge societies rules. (2:50)
In Saudi Arabia, the religious edicts and tradition followed within the country are what prevent women from taking the wheel. It is not law, but longstanding custom engrained into the society defined by Sunni Islam that shapes societies actions. What is most curious is that other Islamic societies such as Iran do not prevent women from driving. So why can’t women in Saudi Arabia drive? The issue is still alive today. Just the other day, a woman was arrested for driving her sick father to the hospital.
Growing up a female in the United States, I have never encountered such gender discriminating practices equal to those that other women experience everyday around the world. In the U.S. women are subject to public commentary and stereotypes, but we are not repressed by law or social norms like the women of Saudi Arabia. I absolutely love driving. I love my little car, and I love being able to hop in, turn on my radio and sing obnoxiously loud as I head off to wherever I’m going. I’ll never forget the feeling of freedom when I earned my license, finally able to drive unsupervised. I cannot imagine being denied the right to drive. The only time I have ever felt restricted was freshman year when I couldn’t have my car on campus. Even then, I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow girls cars on my team. After listening to Sharif speak, it really made me appreciate where I come from. Although there are many things wrong with our government and there are aspects of our society that just make me cringe, listening to Sharif’s TED talk really put things into perspective for me.