Manal al-Sharif: The caged bird also sings

Published: May 30, 2011

Manal al-Sharif is a brilliant, sophisticated woman asking for something that should have been a given: driving her own car.

“It is not a revolution, it is not a plot, it is not a gathering and it is not a protest — we are only requesting to drive our cars.”

The above message was posted on one of the many groups which have sprouted on Facebook supporting Manal al-Sharif’s brave initiative.

An IT security consultant at ARAMCO, the biggest oil company in Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif is a brilliant, sophisticated woman asking for something that should have been a given: driving her own car.

The House of Saud

Saudi Arabia has largely been immune to the revolutions sweeping the region. The discontented Shia minority in the eastern province was quickly silenced and billions of dollars were handed out to citizens in a pre-emptive measure to quell any revolts.

The World Economic Forum global gender gap report in 2010 ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries, and the only country to score a zero for female political empowerment.

Saudi women are forced to live under the control of a male guardian, usually a father or husband, without whose authority they cannot get a job, travel or open a bank account. They cannot leave the house alone or without wearing the abaya. Now a campaign by Saudi women claiming the right to drive threatens to shake the Kingdom’s equilibrium in no uncertain way.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Those who cannot afford the monthly $300 to $400 for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping malls or the doctor.

There is no law banning women from driving, only fatwas by senior clerics enforced by police. The late grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, issued a fatwa in 1991 proclaiming that allowing women to drive would result in “social chaos.”

Saudi clerics hailing from the Wahabi school of Islam, the official doctrine of the kingdom, reiterate that the ban protects against the spread of “vice and temptation” because women drivers would be free to leave home alone and interact with male strangers. Although King Abdullah did promise reforms in the past, the Saudi monarchy relies on Wahabi clerics to give religious legitimacy to its rule and it is reluctant to defy their entrenched power.

Saudi cleric Sheik Ghazi al-Shemri has been quoted as saying that Manal “should be flogged in the women’s marketplace as a model and a lesson.”

“I don’t like the back seat”

Manal al-Sharif started a Facebook campaign urging Saudi women to get behind the wheel to protest the longtime driving ban and did so herself, posting the video on the Internet. She says the driving ban:

“…is against religion and logic. A woman may be a PhD, but she is not allowed to drive!”

Her online campaign urged Saudi women to stage a mass driving protest on June.17 and attracted many followers. Accused of “violating public order” Manal was arrested last week for this campaign.

Activist Wajiha Huwaidar, who recorded the video of Manal driving, said:

“They don’t want anybody to think that they can get away with something like that. That is why she is in prison.”

Social media tools have made it easier for Saudi women to register their discontent with the driving ban. Wajiha, who posted a video on YouTube in 2008 of herself driving, says:

“Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive for the past 25 years. In the 1990s, a group of about 40 women drove their cars on the same day to denounce the ban. Manal was capable of reaching a much bigger number of people because of Facebook and Twitter. I remember in 2007 trying to rally my friends by email and over the phone: it was a much longer process.”

Following her arrest, the YouTube video of Manal driving became inaccessible, as did a second clip, in which she outlined how women could take part in the June 17 protest. A Facebook page she set up, called “Teach Me How to Drive So I Can Protect Myself,” which had more than 12,000 fans, was deleted. The Twitter account she used to spread news of the protest movement was copied and altered to make it seem as if she had called off the campaign. A Saudi blogger in Riyadh who spotted the fake duplicate of Manal’s Twitter account, reported:

“Someone pretending to be her tweeted that she has repented once she realised that the call to lift the ban is an Iranian and atheist conspiracy that will lead society to moral decadence.”

Despite efforts to erase Manal’s call for civil disobedience next month, her supporters kept the campaign alive online, by creating a replica of the Facebook event page and posting copies of the video that shows her driving on YouTube, so it can still be seen inside the kingdom.

A Twitter campaign named Women2Drive is calling for women across Saudi Arabia to drive their cars on June 17. Saudi bloggers have also posted summaries of Ms Sharif’s instructions to women who want to take part in the protest on June 17.

Coordinated campaigns urging men to beat women who drive without permission, also attracted thousands of supporters. A Facebook page called on men to use “iqals” – the cords used with traditional headdresses by many Gulf men – to beat Saudi women who drive their cars in a planned June 17 protest against the kingdom’s ban on women taking the wheel. The page has now been taken down by Facebook.

Recently, orders were issued to extend Manal’s detention by at least 10 more days. Her lawyer says:

“This is a message that any woman who dares to drive her car will face the same destiny.”

Manal’s treatment has drawn criticism from international and local rights groups. Human Rights Watch said:

“The King should end Saudi Arabia’s pariah status in the world as the sole country banning women from driving. Just as his predecessors made their mark by introducing education for girls, King Abdullah can shape his legacy by opening the roads to women drivers.”

Manal’s plight has not been highlighted by the western governments who have been so keen to welcome the much ballyhooed “Arab Spring.” While US President Obama has called for the universal rights of women to be respected while delivering a speech welcoming political change in the Arab world, he did not condemn Manal’s detention lest the omnipotent Saudis be offended.

Futile US efforts to pressurise “the world’s largest women’s prison.”

Leaked US Embassy cables reveal that the Obama administration has been quietly pressurising Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. But the incarceration of Manal reveals the extent of the US diplomatic

Dispatches from Riyadh describe Saudi Arabia as “the world’s largest women’s prison,” quoting activist Wajeha al-Huwaider, who has long claimed that women are chained in the Kingdom. Wajeha regularly tried to take a taxi to neighbouring Bahrain, but since she is divorced:

“under Saudi law her ex-husband or her father or a brother would need to give her permission to leave the country. Although she holds a valid passport, every time she tries to leave … she is stopped at the border to Bahrain and turned around.”

Billionaire tycoon and Saudi royal, Prince Waleed, assured a visiting Democratic congressman in July 2009 that the driving ban, which was merely a “demeaning” tribal custom, was reportedly about to be overturned. But in a dispatch headed “Women need not apply,” US diplomats recorded that US-educated Prince Mansur, the minister of municipal affairs, firmly rejected the notion that political development required the participation of women, saying issues such as women driving were “not fundamental to our society.”

“Saudi women don’t need to drive cars, they need to own magic carpets.”

In Arab News, Rima al-Mukhtar argues that Saudi women don’t really want to drive.

“Usually, only the rich and famous have their own chauffeur, but in Saudi Arabia almost everyone has one.”

She quotes several Saudi women who are reluctant to take the driver’s seat. Banker Zaina al-Salem says:

“When I travel to a country where I can drive… I’m usually burdened about the part when I get to park my car and walk all the way to the store.”

Shahad Ibrahim adds:

“I feel like a princess where my driver takes me everywhere I want without complaint.”

Housewife Layla Murad says:

“The streets are damaged and bumpy and most women will not be able to handle them… Saudi women don’t need to drive cars, they need to own magic carpets.”

Religious preacher Sheikh Khalid Yasin supports the ban and claims that Muslim women endanger themselves while driving, and draws a parallel between the rising number of rapes and women drivers.

Many of those opposing women driving claim that it is a Zionist/Western/ Iranian/Shia conspiracy to disrupt Saudi society and corrupt the morals and honour of Saudi women. It is also said that any woman who speaks out for lifting the ban is not a pure Saudi but rather a woman who is nontribal or an immigrant, because “no pure Saudi woman wants to drive.”

According to Saudi cleric Shaykh Abd-al-Rahman al-Barrak, giving women the freedom to move around on their own would be to tempt God’s wrath. In fact, “they will die, God willing, and will not enjoy this.”

The impact of such blinkered thinking can have a devastating impact on not only the lives of women, but also the relationships between men and women and how it impacts coming generations, as illustrated by a young Saudi boy lecturing on why women should not be allowed to drive.

Manal’s ‘remorse’

Interestingly, attempts are now being made to highlight the purported remorse and shame of Manal. According to Dr Ghazi Al-Shammari, chairman of the Family Solidarity Committee, who visited Manal in prison, she has admitted that she made a mistake by driving a car in the Kingdom and promises never to do it again. He quoted her as saying:

“I made a mistake and I’m a daughter of this nation. I advise girls of my generation to rally behind our leadership and ulema. They know better than us about our condition.”

Are women furniture?

To deprive women of their public space is to deprive them of their identity and shrink their sphere of influence. Without their right to move around, women are no better than furniture. The paradox is that Saudi women have no shortage of money, but little independence so whither economic/social empowerment?

Columnist Khalaf Al Harbi aptly says in Arab News:

“It is an issue of our own creation with its origin in a fear of the unknown, compounded by hypothetical situations in the event of permitting women to drive. As a result, the Saudi society is left bewildered and unable to see a way out. No other society in the world has encountered a similar situation because of the problem’s simplicity. After putting the cart before the horse over the past many decades, we now do not know how to put the horse at its rightful place so that we can ride at a normal pace. We behave like a man endlessly going round a post believing that he has traveled a long distance. Every citizen has the right to oppose women driving. On the other hand, he does not have the right to force his view on the rest of society. Let Manal, or any other woman for that matter, drive her car to take her children to school or hospital, to go to the supermarket or to her workplace.”

After Manal sought the pardon of King Abdullah, latest reports point to her release which begs the question: will Manal and her countrywomen be allowed to drive?

The ball is now in King Abdullah’s court: will he or won’t he?

Maheen Usmani

Maheen Usmani

A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Maira

    Very well articulated. I hope Manal gets what she has stood for – because this isn’t her problem only; her voice is the voice of many women (around the world, even) who desperately want to fight for their rights but get chained down…one way or the other…Recommend

  • Meherzaidi

    This is a very well written article. This issue is so incredulous it has become a joke on Saudi sanity. Imagine a place and a people where a great religion Islam came into being.This kind of retrogressive attitude towards women puts into question the credibility and authenticity of the religion itself. It also equates the equality of the backward house of Saud with being the custodians of the holy places of the Muslims. The irony is that if Al-Qaeda or UBL crowd gain upper hand they are more idiotic and retrogressive than these present rulers. I remember when I was a kid my mother a woman poet, educationist and a staunch supporter of women education and freedom and rights showed me an article in Jang newspapaer where the writer was praising the Saudis for banning women to drive . This was some 45 years ago. She had forbidden us to read Jang when we were kids. Hurriyat, Taleem o tarbiat, Dawn, Morning news and Bachon ki dunya, Naunehal were allowed. We three sisters were made to learn driving and independent given licenses as soon as we came of age.
    The sad and ironic part is that the Pakistani young drivers in Saudia have to face many problems to work as drivers. Sometimes they have to bear the unwanted attention of the ladies and also cannot do anything as they may then be put in jail. Being a doctor I have come across strange and unbelievable human rights abuses.Recommend

  • Yggr
  • Amer

    Usually I wouldn’t care what Maheen wrote since she has her own narrow point of view, doesn’t blink for a second before she throws dirt on any religious scholar etc…
    But having lived in Saudi Arabia in my younger years, I totally agree on this one. Good work on gathering all the information and putting it up as a blog. I hope women in Saudi Arabia can one day drive whereever they want.
    It’s a free Kingdom! NOT! Recommend

  • Jack Bauer

    A Brilliant write up backed by fantastic piece of research. Kudos to you maheen for forming a great structure of this post. You have given plenty of evidence to back up your argument and i hope manal will get her basic right. Saudia is indeed a cage not only for women but for all those who do not bow in front of the sexual deviant kings.

    thanks for this.Recommend

  • 2jama2panch

    How about we concentrate on Aasia bibi and others like her and let King Abdullah and Saudis decide what to do with Manal and women2drive. Recommend

  • Mrs Z Khan

    An excellent article!

    However, I felt very depressed reading about the claim of Manal seeing ‘the error of her ways’ and asking for a pardon. If it is true, then I also hope that the world will see it for the cynical ploy that it is. I laugh every time I see the king referred to as ‘The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ – what a jackass!Recommend

  • http://[email protected] Yahiya Ibrahim

    A very nice and well documented article. The salafists have started feeling the heat and the earth is shrinking for them. We are hopeful that these intolerant beasts will get no more chance to malign the real Islam. The Islam of humanity, peace, tolerance and forebearance. The backward counting has begun…. Remember IF WINTER COMES CAN SPRING BE FAR BEHIND.Recommend

  • Mubasher

    I agree with the writer about the driving issue but why she pointed Shia Minority and Wahabhi school of Islam.There is no need for such words, only the main issue should be discussed.

    On the other hand writer mentioned that Manal is working as an IT security consultant at ARAMCO, the biggest oil company in Saudi Arabia, but she did not praised the Saudi Government to allow her to work with male employees. Both sides of the picture must be present in a fair way not merely criticising things.Recommend

  • F. Alam

    Thanks Maheen for highlighting the plight of Saudi women. You have made us think of something that we have forgotten everything in Osama mania. This is what true journalism should be about!

    We need to ask Saudis if they consider only them the true Muslims & what they think of themselves prior to 1991 when this ridicolous Fatwa was not introduced. Recommend

  • G. Din

    Liberate the Muslim female and you will be more than half way to world peace. This initiative must, strangely, come from the Muslim male who is presently responsible for stifling and smothering her. Allow her to breathe free as you do, to reach her God-given potential and you will find that more than her, you will be the winner alongside her!Recommend

  • Liza
  • Leo Safavid

    Maheen, that was a very well written report on what is wrong with Saudi Arabia. Can you imagine that in this day and age, women in some corner of the globe are still fighting for their right to merely drive a car? Hey, we are not talking about such basics as voting rights, freedom of speech, and gender discrimination. We are actually discussing whether women should have a right to drive or not! How backward & regressive can a country get?

    Can you imagine that such a retarded country, thanks to its petro-dollars, has such a hold on our governments, religious institutions, media, and our politicians? While our politicians, anchors, & media go hoarse crying about American influence but there is not even a whisper when it comes to Saudi infiltration and its destructive consequences on our culture & society.. Personally, although I would rather have a country free of any outside influences, but if I had to choose between Saudi influence and Uncle Sam’s, I would much rather prefer Uncle Sam’s.

    In conclusion it is ‘KHUDA HAFIZ’ from me and not the Saudiized ‘Allah Hafiz’. Recommend

  • Muhammad Asghar

    The interesing thing is that there is no clear Islamic law about the issue. it is all about conservative Arab tribal society.sometimes we consider somethig as religious and sacred,infact they are our deep rooted and long cherished cultural baised.Recommend

  • Shahid


    Well written once again. Lets see if there is any change in Saudi ArabiaRecommend

  • Ahmad M. Qamar

    Is Saudi Arabic more Islamic [so- called] than Pakistan that it cannot allow women to drive cars? In Pakistan where the mullah rules the country, women are not only allowed to drive cars, rather they are many times seen driving their barded husbands, obviously belonging to the clergy class, to work or marketplace. Moreover, I just cannot understand the logic behind allowing women to have a male chauffer, but not allowing them to drive on their own. I believe many of the Pakistani mullahs would like to catch the very first flight to Saudi Arabic in order to work as chauffers for Saudi women..Recommend

  • Ashmeet singh sidhu

    Brilliant and a very well researched article.You are right maheen Saudi Arabia is ‘world’s largest women’s prison’.Recommend


    In Islam women and men has equal differences between men and women..only in physical …. there are many examples in the privious times the women produced menntaly and brvely events in islam ….i and all of us support with saudiyen womens driving and ohter freedum of womens in islamic laws and shreyet….request to all pl support in faver of wemen of saudian for driving and all ways..ok Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Poor manal, this just shows that Religious fascists through out the Muslim world care less about what Islam teaches, but are more concerned about maintaining their power status quo and stuff, by allowing women to drive, this would be the first step towards female empowerment in the Kingdom, which the male chauvanist elite of KSA totally doesn’t want, will some one explain to me, how women driving will result in social chaos, sure I admit, most female drivers aren’t the best motorists behind the wheel of the car, but how in God’s name does them driving cause social Chaos. It is a right that they should have like, similar to the kind enjoyed by women all over the world. In Iran, you have ladies only Taxi Cab services, infact that was a good step towards female empowerment and economic independence. Recommend

  • Maleeha Khan

    Hope to see the change in saudia!!Recommend

  • Waseem Malik

    Saudi Govt.. Should not allow women to drive. I strongly believe that if Saudi Govt.. Allows women to drive, there will be more problems on the road. Normally in Saudi Arabia people drive their cars faster than other countries, Accident graph is highly than any other country. So women can’t handle these things.Recommend

  • Abeer

    @Waseem Malik
    Your logic is going over my head. Do you mean that women should not drive in Saudi Arabia because of the incredible speed of cars on the roads? Shouldn’t the Saudi government put in place speed limits and enforce them strictly rather than forcing women not to drive? If they can enforce all kinds of “checks and balances” on women, why not on Saudi men too? Recommend

  • Ali

    Waseem Malik: This is no place for sarcasm…I am saying that on the pretext that you were kiddingRecommend

  • Sanya Shiraz

    @Waseem Malik

    I’m sorry to say this, but your claim is utterly absurd and ridiculous. Women can’t handle these things? Do you have some sort of scientific explanation for this? That is a very generalized statement and realistic to the point of foolishness. You have no right to decide what a woman can and cannot do.

    The speed limit chart here shows that the average speed in Saudi Arabia may range between 40-80 km/h, and in the United States it may range between 40-89 km/h which may I remind you, is considerably higher. If the “high speed limit” does not stop women from driving anywhere else in the world – the example of the United States is in front of you – I fail to see your logic – that is, if it exists in the first place.Recommend

  • Chaman Lal

    Saudi Arabia is the most feudal and fascist regime of the world and apple of an eye of the US ruling classes, who hit Libya and Syria ,but turn a blind eye to the most oppressive regime.The condition of women is understandable in such regime and Maheen Usmani has done a yeoman(woman) or yeoperson’s job in drawing the attention of the world in an apparently small, but symbolically very significant issue of woman’s right to live as equal and free citizen of a society and nation, whatever may be its religion. Pakistan itself is at crossroads, the path to Saudi funded Arabia ideal, propagated and promoted by jehadis has led to the misery of not only women,but of whole people in Pakistan. People like Maheen Usmani and Beena Sarwar in media are performing a great democratic task in the cause of humanity.I salute this spirit of humanism!Recommend

  • anum

    beautifully written. i hope manals joins her family back safe and sound.
    @waseem your baseless logic made me laughRecommend

  • Lubna

    Reports from Saudi Arabia speak of Manal being forced to withdraw from her campaign, because she was threatened with the loss of her job and the custody of her young son. These Saudis are such barbarians! Recommend

  • Saim

    nice and well researched article.Recommend

  • Shock horror

    A very well researched article showing the terrible suffering of women in Saudi Arabia, the land of Wahabi Islam, which wishes to convert rest of the world to its way of thinking by funding Madrassahs. It is a real shame that they have managed to spread their tentacles in some parts of South Asia.Recommend

  • Sarah

    Manal Al-Sharif’s statement on release from detention:

    // I would first and foremost like to express my profound gratitude to our leaders, in particular the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for ordering my release from detention, a gesture that does not come as a surprise knowing the King’s benevolence toward his sons and daughters in this honorable country.

    Concerning the topic of women’s driving, I will leave it up to our Leader in whose discretion I entirely trust, to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the People, while also being pleasing to Allah, and in line with Divine Law.

    On this happy occasion, I would also like to affirm that never in my life had I been anything beside a Muslim, Saudi woman who aspires to remain in God’s good graces and to safeguard the reputation of our beloved country. And I will continue to uphold these values and principles until the day I meet my Creator whose compassion, and King Abdullah’s big heart, has helped me to persevere through my short-lived ordeal.

    That said, I was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs especially that they originated from individuals I least expected to go down that route. I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others-May Allah guide them rightly-to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system. For at the end of the day I’m everyone’s sister and daughter. Yet how could they wound their sister and daughter with such charges? From the bottom of my heart though I beseech Allah to shower on them his forgiveness for the serious harm they’ve caused me.
    Furthermore, I must point out I do not authorize any individual to speak on my behalf or put words in my mouth, whatever their personal agenda.
    Finally, I pray for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. He is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.//

    I can’t help but notice the obsequious and flattering terminology employed by Manal to seek her release. How sad that such a brave woman has to be browbeaten to take even a breath of freedom. Will Manal now take part in the protest set for June 17? Recommend

  • Saman Ali Abbasi

    Frankly speaking, ARAMCO city is like any modern city in US. Women not only drive, they swim, jog, sunbathe and do whatever they want publicly. I drive my car once I am inside ARAMCO. I don my jeans and drive. No Abayas needed inside ARAMCO. My cousin’s Irish neighbor, a female do roller blading everyday. The swimming intructors at ARAMCO are ladies. I think Manal has to come up with really genuine reasons to drive.Recommend

  • Saman Ali Abbasi

    Dear Mrs Z Khan, You have a right to sY WHATEVER you want to say but I would just like to post my comments regarding Custodian of The Two Holy mosques. He doesn’t want to be refered as the king. He is known as the Khadime Harmain that means care taker of the two holy mosques.Recommend

  • Saman Ali Abbasi

    I have failed to imagine y we can’t drive here. We pay a fortune to limousine services as road side cabs are not safe at all. Mahnoor has asthma and when naveed was travelling I had terrrible nights as her attacks came in the middle of the …night. I don’t want to recall them. Once when I dislocated my arm and Naveed was in Germany I needed my medicines, I called a cab. It came very late. I took my maid and mani with me as I had a huge cast on my arm. To my chagrin, by the time we reached the pharmacy everything was closed down for Namaaz.Can anyone imagine how I felt? Manal is way better as She lives in ARAMCO

    · Recommend

  • Ahmad M. Qamar

    Show me a single verse of the Holy Quran or a hadith in which God or the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, restricted women from driving camels or donkeys [ common modes of travel duing his time]…???????? The Saudi mullah should now invent some hadith to prove his point. Alas! Islam was never represented to be so backward as by the dumb clergy..Recommend

  • jawad Ahsan

    Raising voice in Islam does not mean ‘punishment’ Manal is just trying to protest. Government should either accept it or reject it. However, locking her up makes no sense at all.Recommend

  • Aninda Chowdhury

    where in the quran it is written that – “driving car by women is unislamic ?” these clerics are nothing but a bunch of jabronis who doesnt even understand islam properly and all those fun loving royals are are trying to suppress their women while themselves having fun with escorts in New York and other countries. Recommend

  • Furqan Ahmad

    This might not be relevant here but still……….
    A friend of mine quoted a couple of very beautiful examples w.r.t. the instructions given to muslim women. This is for everyone criticizing islamic ways of life openly or by hiding behind “open mindedness”;

    A British man came to Sheikh and asked: Why is it not permissible in Islam for women to shake hands with a man?
    The Sheikh said: Can you shake hands with Queen Elizabeth?
    British man said: Of course not, there are only certain people who can shake hands with Queen Elizabeth.
    Sheikh replied: our women are queens and queens do not shake hands with strange men.

    Then the British man asked the Sheikh: Why do your girls cover up their body and hair?
    The Sheikh smiled and got two sweets, he opened the first one and kept the other one closed. He threw them both on the dusty floor and asked the British: If I asked you to take one of the sweets which one will you choose?
    The British replied: The covered one.
    The Sheikh said: that’s how we treat and see our women.Recommend