Al-Sharif, best known for challenging laws and traditions that keep women pinned down in Saudi Arabia, says she had been ‘insulted’ when Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, recently praised the country’s progress on women’s rights.
During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Ivanka said progress in the Islamic kingdom was “very encouraging”, even as she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to be done”.
Al-Sharif, in a piece published by the New York Times at the weekend, pointed to the case of her friend Mariam al-Otaibi, detained since April for her campaign against a policy that requires a woman to obtain the permission of a male guardian to work, study or travel, regardless of how old she is.
What type of progress in women’s rights? I wish she [Ivanka Trump] was more specific so I wouldn’t feel insulted. If you don’t want to support us, just stay quiet. Don’t praise. You’re making it worse for us.
Al-Sharif – once a firebrand Islamist who burned her brother’s Back Street Boys cassettes, then her mother’s fashion magazines – is garnering a great deal of attention because of a book she has just published. Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, is a memoir of her political coming of age.
Reporting for the NYT, Somini Segupta, wrote:
It is equally a portrait of tumult and tyranny in Saudi Arabia over the last four decades – and the kingdom’s vexing relationship with the United States.
Al-Sharif was born at home in 1979, the second daughter of a Saudi father and a Libyan mother. They lived in a cramped apartment in Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s holiest and most religiously conservative city. Her father drove a taxi. Her mother stitched their clothes from designs she had copied from fashion magazines. There wasn’t always running water. There was a lot of abuse: her father beating her mother, her sister beating her, and later her first husband beating her. Lots and lots of beatings.
Her generation was bound by a rigid form of Islam. She remembers religious leaders coming to lecture on her school’s public address system. Leaflets were passed out in the streets, prescribing what and what not to do. An elderly aunt who had always worn colorful traditional Saudi gowns suddenly began to cloak herself in a head-to-toe black abaya, because her children told her to. Her mother took down from the bedroom wall a decorative hand-stitched canvas of a woman, bathing.
Photos vanished from their apartment. Young men were routinely encouraged to join the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Being true to that sort of doctrine, as she recalled it, required hating the infidel.
Al-Sharif needed her father’s permission to enter university; she studied computer science. She needed his permission to apply for a job; she was hired as an information security specialist at Aramco, the Saudi oil company. She needed his permission to travel abroad for a business trip, and to get a passport.
A work trip to New Hampshire changed her outlook on many things. She went to the theatre, where she saw two men kissing. She went skiing. She learned to drive.
And then, in 2011, came a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. Al-Sharif was back in Saudi Arabia by then, living in the Aramco compound, a divorced single mother to her son, Abdalla.
She had bought a car. She was allowed to drive inside the Aramco compound.
One morning in May 2011, she decided it was time to take it for a spin outside. A friend sat in the passenger seat and recorded the drive on her phone.
By the afternoon, it was a YouTube sensation. International news coverage followed, and, eventually, a knock on the door in the middle of the night by Saudi authorities. Ms. al-Sharif was thrown in a women’s prison, crawling with cockroaches.
Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, came under pressure to speak out in favour of the Saudi women’s campaign to drive. Clinton said:
What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right.
In 2012, Ms. al-Sharif received the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference of human rights advocates. She had never heard of Havel, the Czech dissident writer who went on to become president, nor did she know precisely what dissent meant.
Speaking out cost her her job, along with company housing.
She lives in Australia now, with her husband, a Brazilian, and their 3-year-old son. She has applied for the Saudi government to recognise her second marriage and has yet to receive it. Exile is frustrating.
When you’re there you don’t just talk. You take action. I feel little bit helpless now, being outside.
Coincidentally, this weekend the Australian – in a section entitled Faith No More – carries the personal accounts of Sami Shah and Ishma Alvi, a Pakistani couple who ditched Islam and – together with their daughter Anaya Shah – became Australian citizens at the beginning of the year