Saudi women’s rights activist fights on, but faces a long road home

Prepares for a road trip across the US to advocate women's rights back home

Reuters April 11, 2019
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif arrives to be honored at the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK: Manal al-Sharif, who led the fight to get women legally behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia when they were banned from driving, is preparing for a road trip, this time across the United States.

She will stop in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Birmingham, Alabama, and nine other US cities, trying to garner media attention around the torture of women activists who remain in her home country, she said.

Al-Sharif planned to finish the trip on her 40th birthday at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, on April 25.

There, she said she hopes to meet with Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador to the United States, al-Sharif told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on Wednesday.

“I’m going to go and ask her about my fellow female activists in jail today.”

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Before her journey across the United States began, she was scheduled to speak about the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia at the 10th Women in the World Summit in New York on Wednesday evening.

The three-day gathering of activists and leaders includes Oprah Winfrey, Anna Wintour and Stacey Abrams.

When a 2011 YouTube video of al-Sharif driving went viral, the information security specialist was arrested and imprisoned for over a week.

After being shunned by much of her community and losing her job when she decided to travel to Norway in 2012 to receive a human rights award, al-Sharif left the country and eventually settled in Sydney, Australia.

There, she campaigns for Saudi women’s rights from afar, where she said she feels safer to raise her voice.

“Oh my God, people are scared in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in 2017 that women would soon be able to drive in Saudi Arabia, and al-Sharif planned to return home to drive cross country, calling fellow activists to join her.

Then, in May 2018, a number of women’s rights activists were arrested and jailed just weeks before the ban on women driving was set to end.

She canceled her trip home, believing she too would be arrested.

Some of the women who are now on trial had also campaigned for an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system in which women require a man’s written permission to work, travel or attend school.

Al-Sharif watched from Sydney as her fellow activists were called traitors and accused of treason even as the driving ban was lifted.

Three women were temporarily released at the end of March and said they had been tortured and sexually assaulted in detention, which authorities denied.

Al-Sharif has spoken to some of the activists’ families, but said the women themselves are not allowed to speak on the phone while their trial proceeds.

Even Saudi friends who support the women’s movement will no longer talk to her about it, she said.

“Everyone has been shut up inside the kingdom. The only hope is us outside.”

Attempts to reach the Saudi Embassy in Washington were unsuccessful.

But being outside the country does not mean living without fear, al-Sharif said.

“What happened with the Jamal Khashoggi assassination - it was very clear that this apparent government is brutal with shutting up any critiques,” she said, referring to the dissident writer killed in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October.

US intelligence agencies believe Crown Prince Mohammed ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi, a critic and Washington Post columnist, and say his body was dismembered and removed to a location still publicly unknown. Riyadh denies the prince had any involvement in the murder.

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Al-Sharif has faced prison time, been scrutinised in the press and at her mosque, received death threats and lost her job and her home.

Perhaps most painfully, she has been separated from her older son from her first marriage.

He is 13 now, and she has not seen him for more than a year.

“Since he was a child, he was disagreeing that women can’t drive, saying ‘Mommy why do you have to wear the abaya when we leave the compound?’” al-Sharif said, speaking of the loose, head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women.

“I’m thankful that he always had these questions.”

She said she to focuses on the gains rather than losses when considering the personal sacrifices she has made.

“I’ve gained my freedom, and I’ve gained my voice.”

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