Interview with Manal al-Sharif

Manal al-Sharif is a Saudi Arabian activist globally renowned for her campaign to grant women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Céline Bacha interviewed her for the magazine to learn more about how her activism intersects with politics, religion, and economics.

Céline Bacha: Why the guardianship system?

Manal al-Sharif: Back in history, before this government started, there was a tribal system, and it was always a patriarchy. You go to the chief, and he’ll go to the king. However, when the government started to build offices, they stayed under this system of patriarchy, and were therefore only for men. So, women are assigned guardians, and this man talks on your behalf: signing papers, getting IDs—you name it.

CB: So initially, it was a matter of convenience?

MS: This system started in order to make women’s lives easier in a world that was run by men. Initially, it was more convenient. The problem is that instead of being merely convenient, it became compulsory. Now, every woman can only do her work through a guardian. Nothing can be done without his permission. I have to get his permission to get an ID, to go to school…It went in the wrong direction. As a result of this system, we have fraud, abuse, and identity theft: women are kept from their inheritances. The government is aware of this, but they lock the statistics away.

CB: Why does the government continue to keep this system in place?

MS: It is more convenient for the government that one party takes care of the whole family—this way they don’t have to open up more offices that would work on behalf of women. Women and children know that if you want to do any procedure, you cannot. Everything says “women and children.” Women in the ‘70s in the UK—it was very similar. The treatment of women in Europe changed when they went out and worked during the war. Their treatment changed when they made their own income. The whole thing is economic. When they go outside and work, they will make demands.

CB: Do you think this is possible in a country where the women are not allowed to work?

MS: The government is going through war and they went through all their savings. They are completely drained. The oil prices are rock bottom now, and they cannot afford having women, half of the workforce, left untapped. In fact, when Bill Clinton visited for the Economic Health Forum, they asked him when Saudi Arabia will become an economic power. And he noticed that the women were not in the room, but held in the back. He answered, “When the women are no longer in the back.” Indeed, as long as women are in the backseat, and are not driving their own lives, the country will be kept on the wrong side of things. No country can afford only having 11% of women in the workforce. Look at how much that is wasting! Most of these women are highly educated, but do not have jobs. That will change. The country cannot afford it anymore.

CB: So this is possible, but do you think the guardianship system has integrated itself into the mentalities of women? Do you think they would be less willing to get jobs? 

MS: Most women want to work. All of the men refused to take cashier jobs. And this opened the door. All women applied, including women with college degrees—because they don’t have options, they will work anywhere as long as it is a job and you can make your own salary. But this system is hard for everyone in Saudi Arabia. Imagine you are a man and your unmarried sister who still lives in the house goes to you for money—then what is left of your salary? You have to take care of your entire household, a whole family of women dependent on you. Men get excited about women working. The problem is that they do not want mixed environments. They want women to work in female-only jobs. 

CB: Why is that?

MS: It is the culture. They do not want women to mix with other men. A lot of my girlfriends wear the niqab when they go to work, and they do not do so in their private lives at all because their husbands can be so jealous and do not want other men to see their wives’ faces. But things are changing. More and more women are uncovering their faces. 

The problem is that women are mature, and they want to be independent and they want to be respected, but the men are not prepared for this reality. There is a certain conflict because these men do not understand what’s going on. They are left out of the equation. Their mothers, their society, did not prepare them.

CB: So, do women receive the same education as men, but are they merely separated? 

MS: Men simply have more options for education. Girls don’t. For example, none of the government schools teach engineering, of any kind, and they won’t teach women. A lot of girls want to, but they can’t. We have to go abroad for options. 

CB: Out of all the tools of oppression that are used against women, why did you think that the question of driving is the most important one?

MS: Oh, definitely not. I never thought the most important thing was to drive. I was always writing, petitioning management about discrimination in the company that I worked for. The driving campaign is the one that came to life by itself, interestingly because I was sent to jail. For me, driving is very symbolic. If you talk about injustice and discrimination against women in the legal system, in the house, these are things that you cannot see, the public cannot see this—you have to physically be in the courtroom, or in this house. If you see a woman in the street, or a female cashier, that is symbolic for ending the discrimination against me as a woman. It’s really symbolic. But it is not the top. The top is the guardianship, which makes the government and the society treat women like children. They are not allowed to do anything by themselves, including driving. Also, driving gives women mobility to be able to work, to be independent, and simply to not have to have another man in the house. I was a single mom. I could afford a driver, but I didn’t want a man living in my house, alone with my son, living with me in my house. You have to take care of him, give him food and everything. I did not want that. I didn’t want a man who would drive my son. So for Saudi women, driving is symbolic. Once you talk about driving with them, everyone pays attention.

CB: So would you say that this form of protest was effective because it is the most visible? 

MS: Exactly. Imagine, if a woman can go out and drive, she can do anything. 

CB: So driving should be considered a first step of sorts? 

MS: It is. It takes so much for women to convince other women to go to court, to complain and document physical abuse. It takes so much courage to do that. Women don’t believe that they can do this. With driving it is the same—it takes so much to convince them to go off and drive. I am creating a fund to help female students abroad learn how to drive, so when they come back to Saudi Arabia, they will be empowered to drive. That will bring big change; a woman with a driver’s license is empowered. 

CB: And what is the underlying goal beneath all of these actions? 

MS: I want to piss them off. They have to change the way they treat women in this country. If you want something, that will not happen unless you take action. You can use social media as much as you want, you can create as much noise as you want, but unless people are in the street taking an action, nothing will change. Do you know that Qatar was the last country in the world that issued women licenses? Do you know how women were issues these licenses? They would go out, drive, and get arrested, and once they were released they went back and drove. They could not care less. These stories weren’t documented, they would spread by word of mouth. Those women would care less and less and went out to drive every single day. And the government just gave up and gave them licenses because it was too much trouble. In Saudi Arabia, we can do this. You can force the government to take action. 

CB: But things are changing now, are they not?

MS: I think that I will not stop until there is a Saudi license given to women…[the government] said that they sent women in Olympics, so we should give them a break [and stop demanding equality]. They said that they put women in the Shura, but those women did not create any change for us. They said that they put women in the municipal election, but it has zero power. They cannot even approve their own budget. Half of the municipal election has to be appointed, the other has to be voted for, but this other half has to be approved by the government! But most activists get rejected from elections, so this is not real change. Even seeing a woman as a cashier is a huge change to me because it creates social change to see a woman in the public sphere. Women are always blocked from the public sphere. This is huge change for me because men have to respect these women who are working there. They have to respect that they exist and they are working, and they serve men and women. So when women in the ministry of finance appointed women to work in the customs in the airport, I was excited.

CB: That seems like a very significant step, is it not? 

MS: It is because now you can see women in the public space, not behind doors. 

CB: And this visibility must generate change. 

MS: In colleges, we have male and female professors. Except the females not allowed to teach boys, but male professors can teach both. But he can only teach girls by being watched through a TV.

CB: That has terrible implications, that the female teacher has too much a potential to be sexualized and that male students would not be able to learn?

MS: Yes, yes, of course. 

CB: Taking all of these issues into consideration, your form of protest is fascinating. At the time when you decided to take action, to go out and drive, what was your train of thought? Was it calculated? Did you suddenly think that you needed to do something so you got up and drove? 

MS: It piled up. The frustration was always there. I got really empowered when I got my driver’s license and I had a car, but I could never drive it! I had a lot of circumstances and incidents that really humiliated me when I went back to Saudi Arabia. And I thought, I have my driver’s license, and I have my car, and I’ve had enough. The Arab Spring was going on, and I saw that the Egyptians called for a day of action. And I thought, this is easy. We can do this. There is no actual law barring women from driving, and that helps too. I am not breaking the law, so they can’t put me in jail. I’m creating social change. I’m actually helping the government. They keep saying that society is not ready, so I’m helping them “get society ready.” How do you even measure this?…When you see someone doing something it becomes so easy to do it, if you never witnessed it, it’s only up to your imagination. And people are enemies of what they don’t know. So when I drove, I was leading as an example to show that now you can drive. No one stopped me the first time, but they kept on threatening me with jail. And the girls were terrified. So I decided to drive again, and this time I’ll drive by a police car to see the reaction. And the reaction was great. He stopped me, and they let me go. They could not put me in jail. This is our victory. Girls can go out and drive. When they sent secret police to my house and they arrested me at 2 a.m., the government thought no one would know. But I made sure that the world would know. 

CB: How could you do that?

MS: I talked to a woman who posted it, and the world knew about it. And I called my sister-in-law so that it could be tweeted. I needed people to know I was in jail. These things are very important because it brought attention from world media, and especially from Saudi society. It was interesting because I had my public profile, and I had pictures of me with my son and people were mad, asking how you could arrest a mother. It all fell together. This was the perfect timing, the whole world was talking about it, and that creates so much pressure on the government. And it brought attention to the movement. 

CB: That’s amazing. But tell me, if there is no law preventing women from driving, why don’t they drive? Do they not issue women’s driver’s licenses? What is it? 

MS: The ministry of interior refuses to issue driver’s licenses to women. And there is a power system of hierarchy that prevents executive orders allowing women to be issues driver’s licenses.

CB: You’ve experienced many different cultures, and surely you take notice of the status of women. And in the US, there is an assumption that by wearing hijab, Muslim women are participating in auto-oppression, that they are acting according to a patriarchal system. Is this a naive assumption?

MS: If you look at orthodox individuals, monks, nuns—this is something that they choose. For shaving their heads, and eating vegetarian, can you say they are oppressed? My friends who cover their faces, who are very independent and people ask if they chose this, and they say, “Yes, I did choose this as a way of life. No one is pushing me.” I respect that someone can choose a way; it was her own choice. I would not accept if it were put on her as a social constraint. In Saudi Arabia, there is a law that forces you to cover your head. And in school, you have to cover your face. I do not accept this because there is no choice involved. It’s all about freedom of choice. I think it’s all about acceptance of differences and of different beliefs. 


I support preventing the veil in Europe. For me, the face is the identity. If you sit down with them and talk with them about so many things in Islam, the veil is just one thing. And one of the things about living in a country where there are security concerns is that you can lose your identity. Even in Islam, there is nothing [in al-Qur’an] about the veil. The text does not decree that Muslim women be veiled—the problem is the interpretation really changed. They say education is powerful, but it is also destructive at the same time. If the education is done in a way that doesn’t encourage critical thinking, and claims one absolute truth, it is destructive and brainwashing. A good education gives you access to all opinions—it is constructive. I think Muslims suffer from destructive education because they only give one opinion that needs to be accepted. 

CB: But do you not think that this is conducted, in some form, in the US as well?

MS: It happens everywhere. People are lazy. There is no search for the truth. People are too busy; it is too much work to watch a different news outlet. And it is very sad because you have freedom of speech and access to information, but you choose not to use it. 

CB: Could you see it as people in general participating in auto-oppression by becoming so engulfed into one opinion? And you can become imprisoned in this way by refusing to see the opinion of your others. 

MS: Exactly. People say that Trump is a disaster. I say, “great!” We need a disaster in order to force people to listen to the poor and the working class. People from their ivory towers dismissed these people as stupid. However, the person who is educated is the one who is supposed to listen, to create a dialogue with them. They chose Trump, and now you are in trouble. Believe me, this will create change. Now, you will see more dialogue, more change more people speaking up. This is really good. The Women’s March would not have happened if not for Trump. 

CB: I think women could have been more willing to give up certain freedoms if they were not being so explicitly oppressed. 

MS: People take things for granted: their freedom, their rights. When they are confronted with a huge disaster like the refugee crisis, they don’t understand it because they have not been in any kind of stressful conditions to understand this crisis. So this is good change. It is not bad change at all.

CB: There seems to be some form of oppression of women in every culture. Almost everywhere you go, women still face many problems. What do you think can be done about women being sexualized and dissuaded from taking higher positions if these are phenomena that permeate cultural boundaries? 

MS: Everything follows the financial industry. Instead of objectifying women, implement rules that prevent this. For example, do not sexualize women to advertise a product. Instead, invest in women. Invest in women’s education and training, so that they can contribute in a meaningful way—it’s a win-win solution. 

CB: Yes, an investment in women is an investment in the future. People always regard Islam as if there is something intrinsic in it that cause women’s oppression. Do you think there is something specific to religion, or Islam, or our interpretations, that contribute to this problem? This seems to be a common assumption.

MS: The problem with religion is that it is used as a tool to oppress people. This is when it becomes a problem. When political Islam was used by the government, it allowed them to do anything they want by simply issuing a fatwa. The fatwa works in favor of the government, and based on the fatwa, they create an order. When they banned women from driving, they used the fatwa. The problem with religion is when it is used to justify injustice. That’s the real problem. People around the world have cultures and rituals that bring them together and bring peace. It is a problem when you don’t accept the other or use it to profess only one truth. There are 1.2 billion Muslims around the world, but it is the aggressive minority that is the loudest. There are a lot of Muslims around the world doing amazing things, but they are not getting the same attention.