Manal al-Sharif (منال الشريف) - Oslo Freedom Forum 2012

Uploaded by OsloFreedomForum on 10.05.2012

Hello everyone, my name is Manal Al-Sharif
and I'm from Saudi Arabia.
I'd like to talk about two chapters in my life.
I'll start with chapter one.
Chapter one in my life tells the story of my generation,
and it starts with the year I was born. It was 1979.
In 1979 there was a siege of Mecca.
Mecca is the holiest shrine for Muslims in the world.
It was seized by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a militant, and some 400 men.
The siege stayed for 2 weeks.
The Saudi authorities had to use armed force, heavily armed force, to end the siege.
And they had to behead Juhayman and his men publicly.
After that event, the Saudi authorities were very anxious
of the uprising of militants and extremists.
Saudi Arabia at that time, in 1979, was newly formed,
and was rapidly changing and adopting the civil new life.
Those extremists, that was against their beliefs, so they wanted to stop this.
So Saudi authorities had to abide by that.
To prevent another uprising, they quickly moved to roll back
the immoral liberties that had been tolerated in previous years.
Just like Juhayman, those extremists had been long been upset over the gradual loosening of restrictions for women.
In the weeks after the Mecca uprising, female announcers were removed from TV.
Pictures of women and printings were banned.
Employment of women was narrowed to two things: education and healthcare.
Music was banned. Cinemas were closed.
Separation between genders was strictly enforced, everywhere,
from public places, government offices, banks, schools, even to our own houses.
So each house in Saudi has two entrances, one for men and one for women.
Petrodollars poured into these extremists' budgets.
They used it to spread religious education and missionary organizations around the world,
many of which preached hatred of the infidel, dedication to global jihad,
and rejection of anyone who does not share the same ideals.
The Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, or the religious police,
was also given a free hand in society.
They beheaded a monster, but enshrined his ideology of hate.
Saudi authorities tried their best to make the story of Juhayman forgotten,
so they removed all articles and records, from magazines and newspapers,
so people would forget about Juhayman.
I remember one day, it was hajj time,
and this is Kaaba, the holy shrine for Muslims.
They left the curtains up so you can see the walls.
I was performing tawwaaf with my mother, where you have to walk in circles around the Kaaba.
There was a hole in that wall, and mom pointed to it and she said
"That's a hole from a bullet from the time of Juhayman."
Juhayman was the name that brings terror to the people of Mecca
and Muslims around the world.
For me that hole went beyond these walls, it went in time,
it was like a hole that we will fill in, and we keep going backward in my country.
So the 80s and the years after there was the Afghan war, and the Soviet Union.
The new extremists were very powerful, promoting their ideas,
and enforcing everyone to abide by their strict rules.
Free leaflets, books, cassettes, calling for jihad in Afghanistan,
and calling to dismiss any non-Muslim from the Arabian Peninsula, were given freely.
I was one of the people who distributed these leaflets.
A 22-year-old man was amongst those fighters.
His name was Osama bin-Laden.
Those fighters at that time were our heroes.
In the Sahwa time, those extremists, one of the main subjects they used to talk about were us women.
For them a woman is always treated like the seductive fruit.
If I leave the house and something bad happens,
I'm responsible for that because men cannot control their instincts.
So I was bound to stay home, according to their rules.
For them I was awra.
Awra is a sinful place of your body to show, or to disclose.
For them my face was awra, even my voice was awra.
My name was awra. Women cannot be called by their name,
so they are called mother of one of her sons, or wife of the man's name.
There were no sports; there were no engineering schools for women.
There was of course, no driving.
We didn't even have IDs with our pictures, except passports when we leave the country.
We were voiceless, we were faceless, and we were nameless.
We were just invisible.
Something happened at that time. In 1990, it was November 6th,
and 47 courageous women emerged. They challenged the ban on women driving and they drove in Riyadh.
These women were detained, banned from leaving the country, dismissed from their jobs.
They stole their lives.
I remember when I was a kid and we received the news. They told us those women are really bad.
Afterwards, a fatwa came, and said women driving was banned in Islam.
Based on that, an announcer came on TV and he said
that the Minister of the Interior warns everyone in this country that women are not allowed to drive
in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Later on, we were not supposed to talk about women driving,
whether in TV or in news reports, or in magazines or newspapers.
So another taboo was created.
The first taboo was Juhayman and the second taboo was women driving.
Something also in the first chapter of my life happened.
It was the bombing of Khobar towers.
They were bombed in June 25th, 1996,
and according to the Saudi government the attack was carried out by Saudi Islamic militants,
including many veterans of the Afghan war.
19 American air force personnel were killed and 372 people were injured that day.
I remember my mother, when she saw the pictures, she gasped.
And she said, "Juhayman is back."
I'm surprised to remember, though at that time I was only 17, but I did not sympathize with the deaths.
I was brainwashed, I was brought up, I was a project of a terrorist at that time.
The change in my life started happening in the year 2000.
In the year 2000 the Internet was introduced to Saudi Arabia.
That was the first time for me to go online.
And I will explain why I am displaying this picture. I was really extremist, so I used to cover from toe to head.
They told us in school that it was sinful to draw portraits of animals or people,
so I took all my paintings and I burned them.
And meanwhile, I was burning inside. This was not fair.
In the year 2000, when the internet was introduced to Saudi Arabia, it was our first door, for us,
the youth, to the outside world, and I was very thirsty to learn about other people and other religions.
I started talking to people with different opinions, and started raising questions in my head.
I began to realize at that time how very small the box I was living in was, once I stepped out of it.
I started slowly losing my phobia of having my pure beliefs polluted.
Let me tell you another story in my life.
Do you remember the first time you listened to music?
To be more specific, do you remember the first song you ever listened to?
I remember. I was 21 years old.
It was the first time in my life that I allowed myself to listen to music. I remember the song.
It was Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely, by the Backstreet Boys.
To help you understand, I used to burn my brother's music cassettes in the oven.
Sorry brother.
I was that extreme. And then I listened to this song.
They had been telling us music is Satan's flute, is a path to adultery.
And this song sounded so pure, so beautiful, so angelic,
it can be anything but evil to me.
And that day, I realized how lonely I really was, in the world I had isolated myself in.
Another turning point in my life was 9/11.
And I think it was probably a turning point for many people in my generation.
When 9/11 happened, the extremists said it was God's punishment to America for what they had been doing to Muslims.
I was confused which side to take.
I watched the news that night, and I saw this picture.
It was a video of a man throwing himself from one if these towers. He was escaping the fire.
I remember that night I couldn't sleep.
The picture of that man throwing himself was in my head, and it was ringing a bell.
Something is wrong.
There is no religion on earth that can accept such mercilessness, such cruelness.
Al-Qaeda later announced their responsibility for the attacks.
My heroes were nothing but bloody terrorists.
And that was a turning point in my life.
After 9/11, Saudi Arabia faced a sweep of terrorist attacks in our land.
The very interesting thing?
A few months after 9/11, for the first time, they started issuing us IDs. Women.
For the first time, we were recognized as citizens in our own country.
Now I will move to chapter two in my life, which I think everyone here has heard about:
Driving for freedom.
Maybe there is a bit of a gap between chapters in my life.
In Saudi Arabia there is not that much happening, so maybe there is not that much to tell you,
about what happened between chapters one and two.
But in chapter two, we were inspired by the Arab Spring, and we were led by personal struggles.
We were a group of women, Saudi women,
who started "Drive Your Own Life."
And it was just a very simple campaign, using social media and calling women to drive on June 17th.
One of the breakthrough things: I recorded a video explaining what was June 17th.
And I recorded another video of me driving.
I used my face, my voice, and my real name.
I was there to speak up for myself.
I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman.
But not anymore.
That video, when it was posted, received nearly 700,000 views in one day.
A day later, I was arrested and sent to jail.
And there was a riot around the country, and people were divided into two parties.
A party called for my trial, even for flogging me in a public place.
Facebook pages sprang up, saying that men would hit women with their igal,
part of the robe men wear on top of their head.
And women replied back, "We will throw shoes at you if you hit us on June 17th."
So it was a fight between the two.
And I didn't realize until after I was released how many people were inspired
by a very simple individual story, something so many of us do, every single day.
It inspired so many people around the world, and created a rally,
that led to my release 9 days later.
And there were rumors, and stories, about me, after I left jail.
That was the hardest thing: not facing what I did, but facing the things I did not do.
On June 17th, on the day we called for women to drive, some hundred brave women drove
despite the streets packed with police cars, even religious police SUVs, in every corner.
Some 100 women drove that day, and not a single one was arrested.
We had broken the taboo on women driving.
Later, I met Mona Eltahawy in Egypt in January.
She asked, "What's your secret?"
And I told her, "Mona, they messed with the wrong woman."
And she used that in her speech that night.
I say that what I feel is that I measure the impact I make by how harsh the attacks are.
The harsher the attacks, the greater the impact. It was simple.
We have started a movement now in Saudi Arabia.
We call it the Saudi Woman's Spring. My group is my right to dignity.
We believe in full citizenship for women,
because a child cannot be free if his mother is not free.
A husband cannot be free if his wife is not free.
Parents are not free if their daughters are not free.
The society is nothing if women are nothing.
Freedom starts within.
For me, here, I am free.
But when I go back home to Saudi Arabia, the struggle has just begun.
I don't know how long it will last, and I don't know when it will end.
But for me, the struggle is not about driving a car.
It is about being in the driver's seat of our destiny.
It is to be free, not only to dream, but also to live.
Thank you.