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  • Translator: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Morton Bast

  • Allow me to start this talk with a question to everyone.

  • You know that all over the world,

  • people fight for their freedom,

  • fight for their rights.

  • Some battle oppressive governments.

  • Others battle oppressive societies.

  • Which battle do you think is harder?

  • Allow me to try to answer this question

  • in the few coming minutes.

  • Let me take you back two years ago in my life.

  • It was the bedtime of my son, Aboody.

  • He was five at the time.

  • After finishing his bedtime rituals,

  • he looked at me and he asked a question:

  • "Mommy, are we bad people?"

  • I was shocked.

  • "Why do you say such things, Aboody?"

  • Earlier that day, I noticed some bruises

  • on his face when he came from school.

  • He wouldn't tell me what happened.

  • [But now] he was ready to tell.

  • "Two boys hit me today in school.

  • They told me, 'We saw your mom on Facebook.

  • You and your mom should be put in jail.'"

  • I've never been afraid to tell Aboody anything.

  • I've been always a proud woman of my achievements.

  • But those questioning eyes of my son

  • were my moment of truth,

  • when it all came together.

  • You see, I'm a Saudi woman who had been put in jail

  • for driving a car in a country

  • where women are not supposed to drive cars.

  • Just for giving me his car keys,

  • my own brother was detained twice,

  • and he was harassed to the point he had

  • to quit his job as a geologist,

  • leave the country with his wife and two-year-old son.

  • My father had to sit in a Friday sermon

  • listening to the imam condemning women drivers

  • and calling them prostitutes

  • amongst tons of worshippers,

  • some of them our friends and family of my own father.

  • I was faced with an organized defamation campaign

  • in the local media combined with false rumors

  • shared in family gatherings, in the streets

  • and in schools.

  • It all hit me.

  • It came into focus that those kids

  • did not mean to be rude to my son.

  • They were just influenced by the adults around them.

  • And it wasn't about me, and it wasn't a punishment

  • for taking the wheel and driving a few miles.

  • It was a punishment for daring to challenge

  • the society's rules.

  • But my story goes beyond this moment of truth of mine.

  • Allow me to give you a briefing

  • about my story.

  • It was May, 2011,

  • and I was complaining to a work colleague

  • about the harassments I had to face

  • trying to find a ride back home,

  • although I have a car and an international driver's license.

  • As long as I've known, women in Saudi Arabia

  • have been always complaining about the ban,

  • but it's been 20 years since anyone

  • tried to do anything about it,

  • a whole generation ago.

  • He broke the good/bad news in my face.

  • "But there is no law banning you from driving."

  • I looked it up, and he was right.

  • There wasn't an actual law in Saudi Arabia.

  • It was just a custom and traditions

  • that are enshrined in rigid religious fatwas

  • and imposed on women.

  • That realization ignited the idea of June 17,

  • where we encouraged women to take the wheel

  • and go drive.

  • It was a few weeks later, we started receiving all these

  • "Man wolves will rape you if you go and drive."

  • A courageous woman, her name is Najla Hariri,

  • she's a Saudi woman in the city of Jeddah,

  • she drove a car and she announced

  • but she didn't record a video.

  • We needed proof.

  • So I drove. I posted a video on YouTube.

  • And to my surprise,

  • it got hundreds of thousands of views the first day.

  • What happened next, of course?

  • I started receiving threats

  • to be killed, raped, just to stop this campaign.

  • The Saudi authorities remained very quiet.

  • That really creeped us out.

  • I was in the campaign with other Saudi women

  • and even men activists.

  • We wanted to know how the authorities

  • would respond on the actual day, June 17,

  • when women go out and drive.

  • So this time I asked my brother

  • to come with me and drive by a police car.

  • It went fast. We were arrested,

  • signed a pledge not to drive again, released.

  • Arrested again, he was sent to detention for one day,

  • and I was sent to jail.

  • I wasn't sure why I was sent there,

  • because I didn't face any charges in the interrogation.

  • But what I was sure of was my innocence.

  • I didn't break a law, and I kept my abaya

  • it's a black cloak we wear in Saudi Arabia before we leave the house

  • and my fellow prisoners kept asking me to take it off,

  • but I was so sure of my innocence, I kept saying,

  • "No, I'm leaving today."

  • Outside the jail, the whole country went into a frenzy,

  • some attacking me badly,

  • and others supportive and even collecting signatures

  • in a petition to be sent to the king to release me.

  • I was released after nine days.

  • June 17 comes.

  • The streets were packed with police cars

  • and religious police cars,

  • but some hundred brave Saudi women

  • broke the ban and drove that day.

  • None were arrested. We broke the taboo.

  • (Applause)

  • So I think by now, everyone knows that we can't drive,

  • or women are not allowed to drive, in Saudi Arabia,

  • but maybe few know why.

  • Allow me to help you answer this question.

  • There was this official study

  • that was presented to the Shura Council --

  • it's the consultative council appointed

  • by the king in Saudi Arabia

  • and it was done by a local professor,

  • a university professor.

  • He claims it's done based on a UNESCO study.

  • And the study states,

  • the percentage of rape, adultery,

  • illegitimate children, even drug abuse,

  • prostitution in countries where women drive

  • is higher than countries where women don't drive.

  • (Laughter)

  • I know, I was like this, I was shocked.

  • I was like, "We are the last country in the world

  • where women don't drive."

  • So if you look at the map of the world,

  • that only leaves two countries:

  • Saudi Arabia, and the other society is the rest of the world.

  • We started a hashtag on Twitter mocking the study,

  • and it made headlines around the world.

  • [BBC News: 'End of virginity' if women drive, Saudi cleric warns]

  • (Laughter)

  • And only then we realized it's so empowering

  • to mock your oppressor.

  • It strips it away of its strongest weapon: fear.

  • This system is based on ultra-conservative

  • traditions and customs

  • that deal with women as if they are inferior

  • and they need a guardian to protect them,

  • so they need to take permission from this guardian,

  • whether verbal or written, all their lives.

  • We are minors until the day we die.

  • And it becomes worse when it's enshrined in religious fatwas

  • based on wrong interpretation of the sharia law,

  • or the religious laws.

  • What's worst, when they become codified

  • as laws in the system,

  • and when women themselves believe in their inferiority,

  • and they even fight those who try

  • to question these rules.

  • So for me, it wasn't only about these attacks I had to face.

  • It was about living two totally different

  • perceptions of my personality, of my person --

  • the villain back in my home country,

  • and the hero outside.

  • Just to tell you, two stories happened in the last two years.

  • One of them is when I was in jail.

  • I'm pretty sure when I was in jail,

  • everyone saw titles in the international media

  • something like this during these nine days I was in jail.

  • But in my home country, it was a totally different picture.

  • It was more like this:

  • "Manal al-Sharif faces charges of disturbing public order

  • and inciting women to drive."

  • I know.

  • "Manal al-Sharif withdraws from the campaign."

  • Ah, it's okay. This is my favorite.

  • "Manal al-Sharif breaks down and confesses:

  • 'Foreign forces incited me.'"

  • (Laughter)

  • And it goes on, even trial and flogging me in public.

  • So it's a totally different picture.

  • I was asked last year to give a speech

  • at the Oslo Freedom Forum.

  • I was surrounded by this love

  • and the support of people around me,

  • and they looked at me as an inspiration.

  • At the same time, I flew back to my home country,

  • they hated that speech so much.

  • The way they called it: a betrayal to the Saudi country

  • and the Saudi people,

  • and they even started a hashtag called #OsloTraitor on Twitter.

  • Some 10,000 tweets were written in that hashtag,

  • while the opposite hashtag, #OsloHero,

  • there was like a handful of tweets written.

  • They even started a poll.

  • More than 13,000 voters answered this poll:

  • whether they considered me a traitor or not after that speech.

  • Ninety percent said yes, she's a traitor.

  • So it's these two totally different perceptions

  • of my personality.

  • For me, I'm a proud Saudi woman,

  • and I do love my country,

  • and because I love my country, I'm doing this.

  • Because I believe a society will not be free

  • if the women of that society are not free.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you.

  • But you learn lessons from these things that happen to you.

  • I learned to be always there.

  • The first thing, I got out of jail,

  • of course after I took a shower, I went online,

  • I opened my Twitter account and my Facebook page,

  • and I've been always very respectful

  • to those people who are opining to me.

  • I would listen to what they say,

  • and I would never defend myself with words only.

  • I would use actions. When they said I should withdraw from the campaign,

  • I filed the first lawsuit against the general directorate

  • of traffic police for not issuing me a driver's license.

  • There are a lot of people also --

  • very big support, like those 3,000 people

  • who signed the petition to release me.

  • We sent a petition to the Shura Council

  • in favor of lifting the ban on Saudi women,

  • and there were, like, 3,500 citizens who believed in that

  • and they signed that petition.

  • There were people like that, I just showed some examples,

  • who are amazing, who are believing in women's rights in Saudi Arabia,

  • and trying, and they are also facing a lot of hate

  • because of speaking up and voicing their views.

  • Saudi Arabia today is taking small steps

  • toward enhancing women's rights.

  • The Shura Council that's appointed by the king,

  • by royal decree of King Abdullah,

  • last year there were 30 women assigned to that Council,

  • like 20 percent.

  • 20 percent of the Council. (Applause)