Manal al-Sharif is the woman who dared to drive. Eight years ago, in a country where women have very few rights, and driving was illegal, she got into a car and did the unthinkable … she drove it. This may seem anti-climactic to most of us, but in a country like Saudi Arabia, it’s a radical move. And one that got her into a lot of trouble.
She became an “accidental activist.” Her actions sparked a powerful movement and last year, the Saudi government lifted the ban on women driving. This is a huge win for women in Saudi Arabia who will now be able to not only drive their cars, but as Manal al-Sharif says, “be the drivers of their own lives too.” It’s a significant and symbolic change to the future of women in the kingdom.
“Eight years ago, I cried on the streets of Saudi Arabia. I cried because after a doctor’s appointment, I could not find a male driver to take me home. I had to endure harassment as I walked alone. I had an American driver’s license and I knew how to drive, but the government would not allow it. To drive while female was punishable by arrest and jail time.”
Manal was briefly jailed for daring to drive. And she ultimately decided to leave her homeland in search of greater freedom. Her bravery and courageous stand has not come without great personal cost. Her 12-year-old son, Abdallah, who lives in Saudi Arabia is banned from leaving the country to visit her. And her three-year old son, Daniel, is banned from visiting Saudi Arabia. They are brothers who have never met.
But, possibly Manal’s most powerful message is about forgiveness and self love. As a young girl she was circumcised by her family. She also endured severe physical, emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of her ex husband in Saudi Arabia. Yet, she has succeeded in treading the path of forgiveness and love through the practice of self love, self awareness and meditation.
“It’s all within us. All that peace, that maturity, that beauty. It’s not really about age. It’s about self-discovery and awareness. It just happens naturally once you know who you are. Once you are at peace with yourself, it happens automatically and you become ethical, you forgive, you love yourself, you help, you’re happy for successful people, and you are grateful for all the things you have.”
Years ago when Manal al-Sharif struggled with forgiveness, she turned to meditation and mindfulness. She realised that sometimes it’s more painful not to forgive than to forgive. Today she is a shining light. A powerful, beautiful and successful woman who is supporting other women to become leaders, through her cyber security mentoring academy in Sydney.
It’s a far cry from her life in Saudi Arabia where she needed a guardian’s permission. In her country women are highly educated because education is free. She says not only is it free but they actually pay you to go to college. She was paid to study computer science and women are also sent abroad to study. Manal al-Sharif was the first woman to specialise in cyber security in her country, back in 2002.
“Just the problem is we’re not empowered because we always need a guardian to give us permission to exist and we don’t have jobs, because of the gender segregation laws in Saudi Arabia. But things are changing and more women can work in places where a year ago they weren’t allowed to before.”
She is a woman, and a leader, who takes chances and who is unapologetic in the way she lives her life. Today she refuses to be caged and places no limits on herself.
“Be who you are and don’t apologise for being yourself. and speak up if you feel something is wrong. And if you find someone who is more vulnerable and less privileged than you, use your voice for them, for the voiceless.”
“You always hear ‘Don’ break the laws. But no, I will break them if they are made to break me as a woman.”
Her story is inspiring because of the powerful transformation she underwent through her unwavering courage and determination.
“I think women in this world should be unstoppable once they know their worth, once they know who they are and once they know what they want.”
Being thrown into the global spotlight and persecuted by the Saudi government, Manal al-Sharif has had to cultivate deep inner strength. Her time living in Australia has opened her eyes to the oppression of women in other countries and she says we should not be divided, but must be united in our call for women’s rights.
“Women’s oppression is not the problem of one country. It’s not a Saudi Arabian situation. It’s a global problem.”
She also references the internal oppression that many women experience in the form of the hatred of their bodies, the putting themselves down, and the plastic surgery and competing with other women.
“It’s for women to question the rules that are imposed on them because sometimes the soft oppression is more dangerous than the very explicit oppression. Because the soft oppression that we apply on ourselves when we follow rules that don’t fit us, or we try to be someone else, to please something, to please society or society’s standards for whom I am as a woman. I think that’s more dangerous.”
Manal al-Sharif is an example of the power of one individual. When we stand up for what’s right, when we lead from the heart and our own truth, we start a raging fire that burns away anything that is less than the truth and is not in alignment with love. We become powerful and compassionate leaders of the connected and beautiful world we all want to live in.