EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Manal al-Sharif, Leading Women’s Rights Activist, Saudi Arabia
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: As a leading women’s rights activist born in Saudi Arabia, you are known globally for your campaign to grant women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. What role do the traditional values and culture within the Saudi society play in suppressing women’s rights in your country?
Manal al-Sharif: In the Gulf, we come from tribal societies, so we have a chief of a tribe, and it is usually the men of the tribe who talk to him while women have no voice. And the chief of the tribe has a contact with the prince of the area where we are – we have 13 areas – and then these princes have a contact with the king. So, you can see that women are socially excluded from this rigid social structure.
EUBulletin: And what about the Muslim religious leaders? Should it not be mainly them who could play the important role in encouraging the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia while also gradually dismantling the deeply entrenched patriarchal system?
Then, of course, you have the religious leaders who are the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia because they have the direct contact with the king, they don’t have to go through the hierarchy to talk to him – you just go to the king because you are a religious leader. And it is those religious leaders that are our problem really. The spread of hate speech, the spread of the message that women are minors, that they should be treated like children all their life, the spread of their version of Islam – it is their interpretation of Islam that is really harming us.
So, even the woman who wants to submit to Islam, she can’t go and work in a place with men because she will always see herself like she is a sinner. They made me feel like I was a sinner all the time when I worked (editor’s note: as the only woman) with men at Aramco, the Saudi state oil company. So, there is this agony you go through and these religious people are always watching you, they are always targeting women, always targeting the guardianship system, but they don’t target the major issues like poverty, like women who have been deprived of their rights, of their children. They always target things like that you have to cover up, they always target these things that have nothing to do with social change.
EUBulletin: Saudi Arabia has often been criticized in Europe and the United States because it is seen as the world’s largest source of funds and promoter of Islamic Terrorism, Salafist and Wahhabi Jihadism that form the ideological basis of Islamist terrorist groups such as al Quaeda, Taliban, ISIS and others. Are you concerned that Saudi version of fundamentalist Islam has found some fertile ground in traditionally moderate Muslim societies like Indonesia?
Manal al-Sharif: It is unbelievable that the Saudi or the fundamentalist Islam has had a huge influence especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. While Saudi Arabia has now been in the process of gradually, though slowly, giving up on being too extremist and being way too conservative, on the other hand, these traditionally moderate and tolerant Muslim societies that were earlier really open are now adopting our fundamental version of Islam that we are now trying to give up.
This is happening especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. You know how much Saudi money have been invested in these countries to build mosques because the Saudis see themselves as the servants of Islam, and, of course, we have Iran, they are our rivals, we have to compete with Iran to push our version of Islam. But our version of Islam is very violent, the fundamentalist Islam – when I was following this fundamentalist Islam, I lived like in agony, because everything is haram, everything is forbidden.
EUBulletin: You have tried to instigate the change in Saudi Arabia by working from the grassroots level. But what can civil society activism achieve under authoritarian rule like the one that exists in your country?
Manal al-Sharif: When you live in dictatorship countries – well, most Muslim countries are backward because we live in dictatorships. Look at the Gulf, we are all authoritarian monarchies, Egypt is a dictatorship, all these countries… But the interesting thing is that it always depends on the leaders because if the leader says that women will have this or that right, they will have it. This is the interesting thing when you live in a dictatorship or a monarchy. Because we don’t have a real devolution that leads the social change, any movement from the grassroots movement that tries to instigate a change in the society is really oppressed, really badly, badly, badly oppressed. And they do the opposite – even if they give you a few rights, they will just take it away because how dare you to ask for some basic rights when you live in a dictatorship or a monarchy.
EUBulletin: But women in Saudi Arabia were allowed in 2015 to vote and run in municipal elections for the first time. Do you see this as an important step in the right direction?
Manal al-Sharif: Well, it’s always up to his holiness, his majesty, I mean the king, his excellency, the president, to give woman the right to vote or the right to be elected into the parliament. But this is not going to bring a really, really big change in our society. Saudi women don’t have jobs and 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.
It’s huge, believe me, it’s so frustrating to live in such a dictatorship or a monarchy. Like in Saudi Arabia when they allow women to be elected to the Advisory Council, being appointed by the king, it was actually just a part of their propaganda. Every time these female members bring their project aiming at women’s empowerment to the Advisory Council and they want to talk about it, they shut them down. Actually, they punish them too – like this woman appointed to the Advisory Council said we should discuss women driving, why all these years women have not been allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, and they shut her down.