The international press picked up on my arrest, which embarrassed the government. There was a campaign in Italy called I Drive With Manal, and FEMEN activists from Ukraine went topless, holding signs saying, ‘Camels for men, cars for women.’ It showed solidarity: it was not only about Saudi Arabia, but women all over the world. Even Hillary Clinton sent her support.
Most importantly, it meant that on Women2Drive Day, about 36 women drove in public. Some drove right past the traffic police and no one was arrested because the whole world was looking at Saudi Arabia. I had become an accidental activist.
After I was arrested for driving, there was a huge campaign to shame me in the local media. I was denounced in Friday sermons [the weekly address in a mosque], which was hard on my family: my father had to listen to a whole sermon about Manal al-Sharif and the prostitutes that want to drive cars. What I didn’t know was that my family would be involved in getting me out of jail, and my father had even gone to see our ruler, King Abdullah.
I no longer live in Saudi Arabia. I can’t. I lost my job when, against my employer’s will, I attended a conference about women’s rights in Norway. I’ve since moved to Australia and remarried. The Saudi government won’t give my husband and our son a visa, so my two boys, Abdalla and Daniel Hamza [who is still with his father in Saudi Arabia], have never met. Being separated from my child is the most difficult part of not living in my home country.
Women2Drive activists continued to drive and campaign until 2014. Then I had a court case in an attempt to secure my son’s right to visit me, and my lawyer told me to stop talking, so I had to shy away from the public sphere. Now, I’m slowly returning to activism and I know my memoir will be controversial. All the Arabic publishers rejected it, which shows how difficult it is to speak up in the Middle East.
I won’t be silenced. The late American activist Rosa Parks and the US civil rights movement have been a constant inspiration. When I was growing up, there was a mentality that we were not to question, discuss or argue, that you should just accept what the authorities tell you. But that is changing: with social media, they cannot do whatever they want and get away with it anymore.
This originally appear in the July issue of ELLE. ‘Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening’ by Manal al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster) is out now