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The woman who defied Saudi's driving ban and put it on YouTube

By John D. Sutter, CNN
June 10, 2012 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Manal al-Sharif, honored for
Manal al-Sharif, honored for "creative dissent" at the Oslo Freedom Forum, says she hopes her story will inspire Saudi women.
  • Manal al-Sharif uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia in 2011
  • A religious edict bans women from driving in the conservative kingdom
  • Some women in the country are planning a driving demonstration on June 17

Oslo, Norway (CNN) -- Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif was taught in school that listening to music -- just like driving, showing her face in public or making a decision without consulting her male guardian -- was forbidden and sinful.

She believed so strongly in music's satanic powers that she burned many of her father's and brother's cassette tapes so they couldn't play them anymore.

Then one day in 2001, al-Sharif was about to dub over one of her brother's American tapes with a lecture on Islam when curiosity got the best of her. She let herself listen to a few bars. And the first song to touch her ears helped reroute the course of her life.

It was the Backstreet Boys' "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely."

"They had been telling us that music was Satan's flute -- was a path to adultery," she said in a recent presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference in Norway. "This song sounded so pure, so beautiful, so angelic. It can be anything but evil to me. And that day I realized how lonely I was in the world I isolated myself in."

Al-Sharif, now 33, gained international attention last summer after she uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving in a country where women are banned from doing so. Now she is the face of Saudi Arabia's Women2Drive movement, which plans to hold demonstrations on June 17 calling for women in that Middle Eastern country to be able to do something that's downright banal everywhere else in the world: drive themselves around town in an automobile.

While driving is technically not illegal for women in Saudi Arabia, a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the early '90s, banned the practice. A statement from the Ministry of Interior backed up the decree.

Al-Sharif's action followed a November 6, 1990, demonstration in which women in Riyadh, the capital, drove without permission. Since her protest, small groups of women periodically have staged what The New York Times termed "random acts of women driving" to stand up for their rights.

Al-Sharif follows in that tradition, but she has caused much more of an uproar.

But, for her, it all started simply.

The divorced mother of one says she likes to make yearly challenges to herself around her birthday, April 25. One year, she went sky diving. In 2011, she wanted to drive. So in May last year, an acquaintance filmed al-Sharif while she drove through the streets of Khobar wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses but not hiding her face. "We want to change the country," she said in the video, according to a translation posted on YouTube. "A woman, during an emergency, what's she going to do? God forbid her husband's with her and he has a heart attack. ..."

"Not all of us live luxurious lives -- are spoiled like queens and have drivers," she said, in reference to the fact that many women have to pay for drivers to get around town.

Al-Sharif's act of defiance did not go unnoticed. The next day, police detained her. She was held for nine days without being charged, she said, and then released after considerable international pressure, much of it coming from the Twitter hashtag #Women2Drive and corresponding pages on Facebook. The next month, on June 17, dozens of women in Saudi Arabia got behind the wheel and drove to protest the ban, according to news reports.

One year later, the Women2Drive campaign is planning to have a second go of it.

The group again is encouraging Saudi women to go out and drive on June 17. Amnesty International has collected thousands of portraits of people who support the movement and plans to send them to the Saudi royal family, said Cristina Finch, the U.S. chapter's policy and advocacy director for women's human rights. And al-Sharif said demonstrations are expected to take place at Saudi embassies around the world.

Al-Sharif is so concerned about her family's safety that she doesn't plan to drive on June 17. "That would endanger my family, not only me."

iReport: What if you couldn't drive for a day?

But the campaign isn't really about driving, she said. Driving, in one sense, is a stand-in for other issues. Women in Saudi Arabia won't be allowed to vote or hold public office until 2015. They can't get married, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, who usually is the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender.

Al-Sharif also hopes driving is a starting point -- that it will empower silent women.

"When women break that taboo and they're not afraid to drive that car by herself -- that's it," she said. "Now she has the guts to speak up for herself and take action."

In essence, the Women2Drive campaign is asking women of Saudi Arabia to go through some of the same transformations al-Sharif did.

In addition to her Backstreet Boys moment, al-Sharif has been subject to several dramatic turning points in her life. In a moderate family, she was the Islamic extremist, she said, supporting jihadists of the 1980s, including Osama bin Laden. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, she took a hard look at her beliefs.

"When 9/11 happened, the extremists said it's God's punishment to America for what they're doing to Muslims," she said in her Oslo presentation. "I was confused which side to take. I watched the news that night and I saw this picture -- it was a video of a man throwing himself from one of these (World Trade Center) towers. He was escaping the fire. I remember that night I couldn't sleep. That picture of that man throwing himself was in my head and it was ringing a bell. Something is wrong. There is no religion on Earth (that) can accept such mercilessness, such cruelness. My heroes were nothing but bloody terrorists, and that was the turning point in my life."

Another change occurred after her divorce, which she said happened without her consent. "I didn't even know," she said. "He just went and divorced me. That's it."

After that, she said, she stopped deferring to the men in her life, including her father, who is her current guardian. Instead of "begging" them to allow her to take a job or drive a car, she said she politely tells them that this is the way things will be.

"I reached a point in my life where I'd had enough of men controlling me," she said. "I stopped asking for permission. ... If you change (a Saudi woman's) mind-set -- (if) she's not weak, she doesn't need permission -- the people around her will change."

Her biggest problems now concern her son, who is 6.

"The kids in the school, they harass him and bully him because they know I'm his mom," she said. She tried to explain the situation to him but couldn't find the exact words. "I promise you when you're older you'll be really proud of your mom," she recalls saying.

She keeps files of news clippings and awards in hopes that, when he's older, he will see them and decide she is not the sinful, dangerous woman her critics portray.

"All I did was ask for rights. I didn't attack anyone. I didn't harass anyone. I didn't oppose the system or the country or the authority. All I said is, 'Why can't I drive?' "

Her work life further complicates this situation.

To speak at the human rights conference last month in Norway, al-Sharif said she had to quit her job as a computer scientist at Saudi Aramco, the oil company. Her employer, she said, told her she could not continue to work if she was going to speak up. The company did not respond to a CNN request for an interview.

The only way she could find work at this point, she said, is to leave Saudi Arabia.

But if she does so, she said, she would lose custody of her son.

She doesn't know what she's going to do.

"It's so hard," she said, before backtracking and putting on a stronger face. "It's OK. I'm used to these things. There's always a price to pay."

She doesn't expect change to come quickly in Saudi Arabia. But she hopes that her own story -- one of change and a call for rights -- could be the inspiration for other Saudi women.

"It took me a long, long time to break the chains that's inside me."

She added: "We're just keeping our heads up. We're not giving up."

At the end of the Oslo Freedom Forum, al-Sharif received an award for "creative dissent" -- another accolade she can put in a scrapbook for her son. In her acceptance speech, she humbly said she didn't know what the word "dissent" meant until she heard she had won the prize.

After learning the word's meaning, she said she doesn't think of herself as a dissident. "I find myself someone who is driven by her own struggle," she said.

Then she ended her speech with a metaphor: "The rain begins with a single drop."

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