Manal al-Sharif: Driving for Freedom

Human Rights Foundation
Apr 26 · 7 min read

On Wednesday April 17, the spokesperson of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia to the United States posted this message on Twitter:

The statement came just one day after Princess Reema bint Bandar was sworn in as the Kingdom’s first female ambassador to the U.S.. Manal received this invitation when she was halfway through her Freedom Drive campaign, during which she is driving across the U.S. to raise awareness of the women who have been imprisoned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and who remain in jail in Saudi Arabia. Manal partnered with the Human Rights Foundation for this drive, which was launched during the Women in the World summit earlier this month. Manal’s Freedom Drive culminated in a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in D.C. on Friday, April 26. The following is Manal’s speech, which was delivered in front of the Saudi Embassy:

Today is the first day of my 40th year and in the eyes of my country I am still a child, unable to make fundamental decisions for myself without the permission of my male guardian. And while last week we witnessed the appointment of the first female ambassador to represent my country, Saudi Arabia, in this embassy behind me, she still needs her wali or male guardian’s permission to travel out of Saudi to pursue her duties here in Washington, D.C.

My name is Manal al-Sharif and this is the last day of my drive across the United States. I started my drive in San Francisco and I am ending it here, in Washington D.C. During my journey, I have passed by places of historical significance for the U.S. civil rights movement, including the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the Rosa Parks Museum. I have met African American activists, women’s rights activists, and indigenous activists from across the U.S., and I’ve learned more about how their struggle for human rights is still far from over. But today I am here because I want to speak about my country’s violations of fundamental values — the same values that this country and other democracies are proud to espouse as their own.

Last year, I promised my 12-year-old-son that we would celebrate the lifting of the women’s driving ban with a roadtrip across Saudi Arabia. I wanted to tell my son my story about being sent to jail for the simple act of driving as a woman. I wanted to share my hopes and dreams for a country that respects and protects his right to live with dignity, for him to be himself without anyone’s permission, to share his thoughts without fear of retaliation and be politically active. I wanted to share my dreams of a homeland that respects his mother’s choices; my desire not to witness the day when he turns 18 and becomes my guardian. But a few weeks before the official repeal, friends of mine who had resisted and fought one of the most patriarchal systems in the world were arbitrarily arrested and sent to jail. They were detained without being charged, and the men who supported them were targeted, too. I knew then that lifting the ban wasn’t about women’s rights. The real reformists are behind bars. The drive with my son was postponed indefinitely, and I remained in a self-imposed exile from Saudi Arabia.

Today, however, I want to talk about the fellow Saudi men and women I’ve encountered along the way. On my first day in the U.S., I met my cousin, a PhD student who left Saudi Arabia eight years ago and lives here with her three children. She was granted her asylum on the day I arrived, and it was a day of celebration: finally, she would be allowed to work here and travel freely. My cousin is a survivor of child marriage. She told me that after she left Saudi Arabia to begin her PhD, it was very difficult for her to go back: she had tasted freedom, had the chance to be who she wanted to be, and she had seen her children do the same. I was overjoyed for my cousin but at the same time, I felt sad. She is just one of countless women from my country to leave Saudi Arabia and never go back. They choose exile because that’s the only way for them to live a normal life.

On the second day of my trip, I met Lina al-Hathloul, the youngest sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, who is still behind bars. Our “meeting” lasted just seconds: there were barely any words, only hugs and tears. Before she left me to go on stage, I managed to ask her just one thing: to deliver a promise to her sister Loujain. It was one sentence — that she wouldn’t rest until Loujain was free again.

On the third day of my drive, I met Arij al-Sadhan, whose brother was removed from his office in March 2018 due to being outspoken on his anonymous Twitter account. Nothing has been heard of him since. I promised Arij that I would speak on behalf of her brother, Abdulrahman, and of all the Saudi citizens who have been forcibly disappeared. Like Arij and her mother, many of their families have heard nothing from them for a year or more.

On the fourth day of my drive, I met Samah Damanhouri, who came here as a Master’s student on a scholarship sponsored by the Saudi government. As a condition of the scholarship, Samah, as a female, was required to be here with a male companion. She didn’t have one. Her father, her assigned guardian, cancelled the funding and tried to force her back to Saudi Arabia. Samah was unable to continue her studies. Eventually, she chose to stay here and apply for asylum without the support of her family and without the ability to return home.

On the fifth day of the trip, I met Abdulrahman, another Saudi student who came here on a scholarship. When he first arrived to the U.S., Abdulrahman had been full of nationalistic and racist ideas. He now regrets the ideas he brought with him. After some time in the U.S., Abdulrahman became outspoken about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. As a result, his scholarship was discontinued by the government, and he was left with no option but to apply for asylum.

On the last day of my drive, I met Abdul al-Ouda, whose father, Dr Salman al-Ouda, was arbitrarily arrested for “anti-government activities”. For the eight months he was detained, his family had no access to him. When they were finally allowed to see him, Abdul’s father, who is in his sixties, said he had been mistreated in jail for being outspoken and influential in Saudi Arabia. Abdul told me how they had handcuffed his father and shuffled him from one place to another like a sheep. He reported that 17 members of his family are now subject to travel bans.

Before the drive, my activism was focused on the jailed women’s rights activists, because we had worked together and because I know them personally. Now, my view has changed. Every story I have heard from the family member of a detainee or a person in self-imposed exile has radically altered how I look at things.

I have come to the conclusion that the real problem in Saudi Arabia is the political system. We still live under one of the last standing absolute monarchies in the world: where one man has absolute power, and the government — instead of serving the people — oppresses them.

Initially, my demands were simple: the release of my fellow women’s rights activists, an end to the travel bans imposed on their family members, and that the people responsible for their torture be held accountable. Now, it is clear to me that we, as Saudi people must call for change. We must insist on an end the absolute monarchy and the rule of one person. We must fight for a system that respects the citizens of Saudi Arabia and guarantees our political, civil, and human rights.

I’ve been called “disrespectful” to my country, its people, and its government. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my country, my roots, my homeland and my people. That’s why I’m certain that we deserve better. The government is not the people; the government is not my homeland. We who speak out against violations of human rights, citizens’ rights and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — we do so because we love our country. We are the real patriots.

I love my homeland, and I love my people, but the government is not my homeland and it is not even a representative of those it claims to serve. People and government are two separate things, and nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia. We are led by a man who thinks he owns our destinies, and our system enslaves men and women alike by stripping away their basic human rights. It terrifies me that my country has become known as a place from which men flee to die and women flee to live. The people of Saudi Arabia deserve better, and citizens in democracies deserve governments that protect the values they claim to stand for.

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Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonprofit that promotes freedom where it is most at risk. We produce the Oslo Freedom Forum (@OsloFF)