Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who dared to drive, is once again taking to the open road to shine a global spotlight on what she views as the injustice taking place in Saudi Arabia.
Sharif is driving across America, in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation, to raise awareness of her fellow female activists who are still detained for wanting to be able to drive. She started her trip in San Francisco on April 12, and will cover some 3,000 miles to Washington, DC, as she calls on the staunchly conservative Saudi kingdom to end it’s “war on women.”
“It really concerns me that the world doesn’t see the violations of human rights and women’s rights in my country,” she tells CNN.
“It’s really heavy on my heart that my friends who fought with me are all in jail today and being tortured. My hope is that this campaign will help in their release.”
Sharif shot to global fame in 2011 when she recorded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia and uploaded it to YouTube. The act got her arrested and imprisoned but also captured the world’s attention and condemnation. She was released 10 days later and continued to campaign for women to have the right to drive in the only country on Earth where it was deemed a felony.
“One of the major obstacles for women to get economic independence and find jobs was mobility. In a country with no public transportation, no pedestrian cities, where you can’t even ride bikes, driving was the only means for women to get to their jobs. If you can drive your own car, you can drive your own life,” she explains.
On June 24, 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were finally granted the right to drive in what global rights groups hailed as a victory. However, the euphoria was short lived. Women remain in prison and on trial for their activism in campaigning for that right, with widespread reports of abuse and torture, allegations the Saudi government has denied.
“When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power, we were all fooled that he was a reformer,” Sharif says.
“We were desperate for change and wanted to believe.”
She says the first year of his rule seemed great. Then in the second year, there was the start of the war in Yemen, which many Saudis found troubling. Sharif says the prince “brought the war home” to within Saudi Arabia.
“The first wave of arrests was in September 2017. All the people who were vocal on Twitter were arrested. Clerics, scholars, academics and business men,” she says.
“This was followed by a wave of arrests of women’s rights activists in May 2018. Women were quietly taken from their homes and put in secret prisons. They have been held in solitary confinement and their families have confirmed they have been tortured,” she says, adding, “All the real reformers remain behind bars.”
As a result of the crackdown, Sharif has spent the past four years living in self-imposed exile in Australia with her husband and her youngest son. Her eldest son and his father remain in Saudi Arabia.
Why drive across America?
She chose to drive across America to highlight the close relationship between Washington and Riyadh despite the kingdom’s abuse of human rights.
“I lost hope” after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the hands of the Saudi government last October, she says.
“They confessed they did it and they got away with it. Why would I even fight a system that received no consequences for murder?”
Initially, she felt like she had to stay silent and stopped using all her social media accounts. Then in January, she saw the case of Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi girl who barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room as she fought to seek asylum in Australia. That’s when Sharif decided she could no longer stay quiet. She started planning her drive for freedom across the United States.
On the fifth day of her road trip she received a tweet from the spokesperson for the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington asking her to meet with the kingdom’s new ambassador. The tweet read: “The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington notes the US tour of Ms. Manal Al-Sharif and welcomes the opportunity for her to meet the new ambassador, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar, once she takes her post.”
Her response was swift.
“I’m happy to meet her and this is really a good sign. My demands are simple: The immediate, unconditional release of the women’s rights activists in jail, all the prisoners of conscience, lifting the travel ban on family members and my last demand is I’ll meet her outside.”
The embassy has not yet replied, but it’s doubtful her demands will be met. CNN has reached out to the Saudi government for comment on Sharif’s drive and is awaiting a response.
This week, Saudi Arabia executed 37 men convicted of terror-related crimes. One of the convicts was crucified, according to an Interior Ministry statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency. The executions have drawn widespread condemnation. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet called the move “shocking” and “abhorrent.” Amnesty International dismissed the legal proceedings that led to the convictions as “sham trials that violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture.” While individual members of Congress have expressed outrage at these executions, the US State Department has so far declined to specifically condemn them.
Sharif’s trip will end Friday with a protest outside the Saudi Embassy in DC as she celebrates her 40th birthday. “I will be 40 but due to Saudi’s strict guardianship laws, when my 13-year-old son turns 18, he will legally be my guardian. He has to give me permission to do basic things like go to school or to the hospital,” she says.
“My hope from this drive is to not only raise awareness about the women’s rights activists in my country but it’s also to revisit all the women’s rights activists throughout history that have been forgotten.”
“It’s very important to know it’s not a destination, they’re just milestones. The journey goes on and generation after generation, women before us, we stood on their shoulders and generations after us, women will stand on our shoulders.”