Manal al-Sharif, a 33-year-old Saudi woman who last June challenged her country’s ban on women driving by organizing a collective protest via YouTube, in which several dozen women openly flouted the long-standing law, told an audience of philanthropists and entrepreneurs that included Google founder Sergey Brin and former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo: “Few [outsiders] can understand the depth of the issue, because in the rest of the world, it’s a non-issue.”
“In Saudi Arabia, women driving goes beyond the mundane matter of a woman getting her hands on the wheel,” Sharif said. “The freedom of movement that lifting such a ban implies is what has conservative factions in our society so rigid.”
Sharif’s “Women2Drive” campaign sparked a fierce backlash in the kingdom (but inspired this sassy video by the British hip-hop performer M.I.A.): Sharif was jailed for nine days, but only a single driving ticket was issued the day of protest. Saudi’s King Abdullah has since decreed that women be allowed to work openly in retail jobs, employing more than 40,000 Saudi women, and last September, the king granted women the right to vote in future local elections and join the advisory Shura council as full members.
This limited, though extraordinary, expansion of rights has encouraged some to predict a “Saudi Women’s Spring,” but Sharif is quick to put things in perspective. “Let’s be serious: we’re way behind the starting point of those revolutions. Fifty percent [of us] have yet to achieve basic rights.” Social media, Sharif emphasized, has been an indispensable tool for Saudi women “to absolve the gender apartheid.”
“It is our democracy sandbox, our personal bully pulpit,” she said.