Saudi Activist Manal al-Sharif Stops in Houston to Share Personal Story

Manal al-Sharif

Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif (left) in conversation with Michael Dokupil, principal at SFC Capital Management, in Asia Society Texas Center's Edward Rudge Allen III Education Center on Thursday, April 18, 2019.

HOUSTON, April 22, 2019 — Saudi writer and activist Manal al-Sharif stopped in Houston amid her cross-country tour, “The Freedom Drive,” to speak to a captivated audience at Asia Society about her journey becoming what she called “an accidental activist” for women’s rights.

In conversation with moderator Michael Dokupil, principal at SFC Capital Management, al-Sharif discussed growing up in Saudi Arabia, where she unquestioningly accepted strictures against girls and women as the norm amid a heightened religious atmosphere post-1979.

Al-Sharif said her viewpoint began to shift due to her exposure to books, the internet, and female figures from different, more liberal backgrounds. Upon graduation, she became an information specialist at Aramco, where she worked with almost exclusively men and was allowed to drive and to not cover her hair.

Despite these loosened restrictions at the Aramco complex, al-Sharif could not leave the complex on her own. She also needed a male guardian’s consent to apply for housing. The guardianship law meant she could leave the country only if her father applied for the visa on her behalf and that her son, upon turning 18, would become her guardian. Additionally, rather than allowing women to drive, Saudi families would pressure young boys to get their licenses and get behind the wheel without taking a driving test.

“Car accidents are the No. 1 cause of deaths in Saudi Arabia, and the reason driving is so dangerous in my country is because women don’t drive,” al-Sharif said with a laugh.

After realizing how few rights women had in the kingdom, al-Sharif set out to fight for change. In 2011, she co-founded the movement #Women2Drive. After receiving her driver’s license in New Hampshire, she returned to Saudi Arabia and deliberately got behind the wheel in hopes of getting arrested. She achieved her goal. When she was eventually pardoned after a media outcry, it was on the condition that she never speak about her arrest, give interviews, nor become an activist.

“And that’s exactly what I did,” she joked to the audience.

Al-Sharif’s efforts contributed to the 2018 lifting of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia, but they did not come without personal sacrifice. She was targeted by hateful comments and death threats on all her social media accounts. Following her divorce, her son remained with his father in Saudi Arabia, where al-Sharif cannot return without risking arrest. She currently lives with her younger son in Australia.

“The only way for me to see one son is to leave the other,” al-Sharif said.

Al-Sharif continues to face criticism for her activism, and has been accused of trying to “Westernize” Saudi Arabia. She said she disagrees with that characterization: To her, women’s rights are human rights, and they are universal. She also said she still loves Saudi Arabia, her homeland: “The government and people are two separate things.”

Al-Sharif continues her cross-country drive, which will conclude in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C.

About Asia Society Texas Center

With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.

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