It’s a privilege many of us in the western world wouldn’t give a second thought about, but driving is viewed as forbidden behavior for women in Saudi Arabia.
For the past seven years, activist Manal al-Sharif has led the Women2Drive campaign, advocating women’s rights to drive in the country.
Speaking at last Sunday’s All About Women event at Sydney’s Opera House ahead of International Women’s Day, Manal said she’ll be celebrating on June 24, when females in Saudi Arabia will finally have the freedom to sit behind the wheel.
“It’s not illegal for women to drive, it’s a cultural taboo,” Manal explained of her home country’s customs.
“In Saudi Arabia, cultural taboos are seen more sacred than religion.”
Women are only allowed to be driven by a male guardian, who could even be as young as a 10-year-old boy.
Back in 1990 there had been a protest campaigning women’s driving rights, but it was 21 years later, in 2011, when Manal’s bold move on the road made a big difference.
She was famously arrested after a video emerged of her driving on the local streets, but being put behind bars only made her more determined to fight for the cause.
“When I was sent to jail and came out, I said, ‘This is what I want to do’,” the activist and engineer explained.
“As a Saudi woman I grew up with a list of things I can’t do,” she admitted.
“[But] tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll go do it,” she then laughed.
Manal’s persistence certainly paid off, and she’s proud to share that women of Saudi Arabia will be able to obtain a driver’s licence in just a matter of months.
“I do believe that women [being] allowed to drive will be a permanent change,” she told the Australian audience.
After June 24, women in Saudi Arabia will have the opportunity to go to a driving school to obtain their licence, and won’t be required to have a male guardian with them in the vehicle.
There will also be female traffic inspectors.
But there’s still a long way for Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Islamic country, in terms of achieving gender equality.
And she says if there’s one thing women in western countries like Australia could do, it would be to “never take your rights for granted”.
“If you do any normal thing, tag yourself to show solidarity with Saudi women,” she requested, acknowledging social media is a major tool in progressing advocacy efforts.
“Here in Australia for the first time in 38 years, I’m completely free to be myself,” she admitted.
“It is my hope that one day I can live like this in my home country.”
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