EUBULLETIN talked in an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Manal al-Sharif, a writer, blogger and leading women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, who was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
There’s no actual law against women driving in Saudi Arabia – but it’s forbidden. In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif decided to encourage women to drive by doing so – and filming herself for YouTube. During a second turn at the wheel, she was arrested. Nine days – and a groundswell of protest – later she was released from jail. An information technology consultant, Al-Sharif remains active in the women right’s movement. She has broadened her campaign to focus on guardianship annulment and family protection as well as driving rights, and has founded several groups throughout Saudi Arabia with the title “My rights, my dignity.”
EUBulletin: What should the EU and the national governments do to integrate – in the context of the current Islamophobia – the incoming migrants and especially those coming from predominantly Muslim countries?
Manal al-Sharif: I did not go through what you are going through, so I cannot really comment on this. They don’t allow immigration to my country, Saudi Arabia – it is not allowed – and even if you are born in Saudi Arabia, to be Saudi, you have to be born to a Saudi father. So, we did not go through this issue. So, good luck really – I know it is really a huge challenge what you are going through in Europe.
EUBulletin: As a leading women’s rights activist, you look mainly at the role of women in the traditional, majority Muslim societies. But what about in Europe? Has the role and position of Muslim women changed from the 1st to the 2nd and 3rd generation of Muslim migrants?
Manal al-Sharif: I can talk about other countries that I have lived in but I did not live in Europe, so I don’t know the challenges you are facing here, why this hatred against immigrants is present here. Of course, the United States, Canada or Australia are countries of immigrants but Europe is different – people have lived here for thousands of years and when you see someone from outside, then there is this sensitivity towards the prayer calls or veiled Muslim women. A Muslim woman is always called ‘oppressed’, although she is just practicing her religion, no one can see a nun in a monastery or Dalai Lama as ‘oppressed’, just because he is wearing his traditional Buddhist robe.
The whole idea is, I think, that these women when they come to Europe to be given the same chances as men. So me, if I were the 1st generation, I would have the same mentality like when I came, it would be very difficult to change the old people’s mentality. But the 2nd generation is where they ask these questions and they take choices that their parents and their moms did not have back home. Believe me, if I were here, I would be very active, unlike in the Saudi Arabia, because in Saudi, they don’t allow you to do anything, even to find a job you cannot – simply because you are a woman.
I mean men are 89 percent of all the workforce in Saudi and women are mere 11 percent, although we women are 60 percent of all graduates from the higher education and colleges. But we don’t have jobs and we don’t have any political representation, we cannot even vote for the people in the Council in the municipal election, half of whom are appointed by the king and the other half he has to approve it. If I am going to apply, nobody is going to approve me to apply, no one will vote for me. And if there is a municipal election, they can’t even approve their own budget – we are not even given these opportunities.
EUBulletin: In contrast to this situation in Saudi Arabia and other countries known for their discriminatory policies on woman’s most basic rights, European societies with highly developed welfare systems encourage women to pursue their careers in parallel with their family lives, such as through provision of childcare for working women.
Manal al-Sharif: Still, I am pretty sure it is hard to come here to Europe as a Muslim woman at the moment – I don’t want to go through the hate speech, I don’t want to go through people calling me immigrant – but I am pretty sure that people who do come here have no choice. And it also depends on the woman to decide like why we all have to look in a certain way, why you have to act in a certain way… they should be given the option to choose: would I want to be a mom to take care of the kids or to go out evenings, work and also have a family.
You have a good system to support women in Europe. That would by appreciated by Muslim women like Leila who was really, really young and they promised this Moroccan lady that if she comes to Saudi Arabia, she would be working in a beauty salon, but look, she went there and ended up working, like thousands of other Moroccans girls, as a maid in a Saudi household until she was overworked and abused. By contrast, Audrey Azoulay is also a migrant from Morocco who moved to France years ago and today she has become perhaps the youngest minister of culture and communication in that country. And everyone says look when these women are given the chance, they prosper, they become something, while in countries, like Saudi Arabia, where they don’t give them the chance, they are treated as second-class citizens.