I felt like one of my father’s songbirds, let out of its cage’: driving as a woman in Saudi Arabia

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It began as a protest and became a national talking point. A women’s rights activist reveals what happened when she filmed herself behind the wheel.

Manal al-Sharif

Manal Al-Sharif … ‘I felt I was driving for all Saudi women – and, in a sense, I was.’
Manal Al-Sharif … ‘I felt I was driving for all Saudi women – and, in a sense, I was.’ Photograph: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

I asked another activist, Wajeha, to accompany me when I made the video. Because my brother was not available, I also decided to ask a friend, Ahmed, if he would come too, since an unaccompanied woman would raise suspicions. Wajeha would be the film crew and Ahmed would be our designated driver until I slid over and took the wheel of my purple Cadillac SUV. I had spent several years saving my money for the car; a car that I would now for the first time be driving on actual Saudi kingdom streets.

Ahmed honked the horn outside Wajeha’s house, and she practically ran out the door. Her hair was neatly concealed beneath a black hijab, but she had on a bright pink abaya [a loose, robe-like dress]. Saudi women rarely wear anything but black abayas in public. When I saw Wajeha in pink, I giggled, thinking that she was even more fearless than me. No doubt, she was thinking that if we got arrested, at least she would look stylish.

Ahmed looked in the rear-view mirror and turned the key in the ignition. Outside the compound where I lived, he drove nervously, looking at the speedometer, then over at me and then up at the mirror to see who might be behind us on the road. His anxiety was contagious, but I also felt a growing sense of exhilaration. After several blocks, we passed the local police station, and then, at last, we reached the cafe where Ahmed would stop for a lemon and ginger tea. He pulled into the car park but didn’t park until we were well behind the building, out of sight.

Manal al-Sharif … ‘You’ll find a woman with a PhD, and she doesn’t know how to drive.’
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Manal al-Sharif … ‘You’ll find a woman with a PhD, and she doesn’t know how to drive.’ Photograph: Simon and Schuster

Finally, I moved to the driver’s seat and Wajeha moved to the front-passenger seat. I took a deep breath, sat down inside the car and put my hands on the steering wheel. Although I was enclosed, at that moment, I felt like one of my father’s songbirds, let out of its cage and flying around the room. “Thank you, my friend,” I said to Ahmed out of the rolled-down window. “We’ll be all right – don’t worry.” As I fastened my seatbelt, I could feel my hands shake slightly. I placed the key in the ignition, adjusted the rear-view mirror, and pulled my black hijab close round my face to make sure no hair was visible. I reached for my sunglasses from inside my bag, placed them on my uncovered face, and took one last look at myself in the mirror.

As the car glided down the street, I began to compose my thoughts for the video’s introduction. I wanted to declare in a clear, loud voice: “This is my right, the right to drive.” But instead, I turned the wheel of the car and gazed straight ahead, feeling the iPhone hovering close to my face. After chatting casually for a few minutes in Arabic, I said: “There’s something to be proud of in this country. There are people doing voluntary work without pay to help the women of this country. We are ignorant and illiterate when it comes to driving. You’ll find a woman with a PhD, and she doesn’t know how to drive. We want change in the country.” Like other people of my generation, who had been gathering in city squares and on street corners across north Africa and the Middle East, who were raising their voices and their hands and using their mobile phones and cameras to stand up to repression, authoritarianism and tradition, we were at that moment pushing back against one of Saudi Arabia’s most enduring cultural taboos.

I looked left and turned towards the supermarket where I shopped for groceries each week – and where previously I could only go with a male driver. I let the steering wheel glide smoothly in my hands as I made the turn, looking out so I could make eye contact with any oncoming drivers. A silver Toyota SUV approached, and I saw the driver lean slightly to his right and speak to a woman seated next to him. They looked at each other and then back at me. I smiled, and Wajeha asked: “Why are you smiling, Manal?” I turned to face the iPhone in her hands, smiled even wider, and said: “Because I am driving.”

The car park was crowded with male drivers, standing outside their cars, waiting for their female clients. Their eyes widened and followed us; I could hear several of them whispering to each other in Hindi or Urdu. But no one confronted us. I felt a bit like a child breaking the rules, but I also knew this was far more serious than a childhood prank. “Wajeha, let’s get some groceries,” I said. “I’d like to get my son a treat.” We moved through the aisles, placing items in our shopping basket: a bottle of water, a piece of fruit and a chocolate bar for my son, Aboudi. At the checkout counter, the two of us stood side by side, saying nothing as I pulled out my wallet.

We walked proudly through the parking lot, opened the car doors, and got back in. Only then did Wajeha and I look at each other and break into spontaneous laughter, calling out together, “We did it!” I placed my slightly sweaty hands on the wheel, turned on the ignition, and said, “Come on, Wajeha, let’s keep driving.” She began to film again, but I barely spoke. Instead, I took in the space and power of the car and the undeniable sense of victory. I knew then that no matter what my future held, I had done something important and meaningful. That day, I felt I was driving for all Saudi women – and, in a sense, I was.

As I drove, I contemplated the route my driver usually took after leaving the grocery store. But I also knew that I did not yet have that freedom. After a few more miles, I guided the car back in the direction of the cafe where we had dropped off Ahmed. I drove neither fast nor slowly, but I could feel myself looking at the familiar streets and buildings that I had never seen from a vantage point other than the passenger seat. I couldn’t help glancing in the direction of the police station as we passed. It was the same place where two days later I would be detained.

Source The guardian

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