Manal al-Sharif – Daring to drive the change: Courage, conviction and the power of using your voice 

I want you to imagine for a second that your son or daughter – or niece or nephew if you don’t have children – is your legal guardian.

You need their written permission to open a bank account, get a job, get married, get divorced or leave the country. If something were to happen to them, your ownership would then be passed to someone else.

As part of this system, you’re also not able to leave the house alone, drive, show your face, have your name used in public – the list goes on.

When I first started researching todays episode – I had to take a second with that. What parts of my life right now would be or would have been impossible? How would I navigate the day-to-day practical aspects of just existing?

Having had those freedoms throughout my lifetime, it’s hard if not impossible to imagine having them taken away. Let alone not having them in the first place.

My guest today grew up within such a world. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, a country in which – prior to 2019 – women were not permitted legal guardianship over their own lives – including being (until 2018) the last nation on earth to give women the right to drive.

There have been a number of reforms in women’s rights within Saudi Arabia over the past few years – including women’s right to take guardianship over their own lives after the age of 21 – and an increase in participation of women in the workforce from 20% to 33% within the past two years.

However, pivotal to these reforms, are the women that – in the case of today’s guest -quite literally ‘drove’ that movement. A movement that both divided – and then changed an entire Nation.

My guest today is Manal Al-Sharif. I was first introduced to Manal a few years ago when – in exile from her own country – she moved to Australia. Since then we have stayed in touch, and I have watched in awe as she travelled the world speaking on International stages to talk about her activism – and later her incredible book ‘Daring to Drive’. 

In 2011, Manal co-founded and led the #Women2Drive movement. To challenge the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested and imprisoned for “driving while female” and was released on the condition that she never drive again on Saudi lands and never speak about it.

Ignoring these conditions Manal continued campaigning for #Women2Drive and the  #IAmMyOwnGuardian movement – with the aim to end male guardianship in her country. In June of 2018 the Saudi government lifted the ban on women driving. Manal then went on to start #Faraj, a campaign to help domestic helpers leave jail, and #IAmLama which resulted in codifying the first anti-domestic violence law in Saudi.

As a result of her tireless activism, she was awarded the first Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Including being listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech.

Manal is a TED and Harvard speaker, she has also spoken for the United Nations, UNESCO, the Obama Summit, Google, Yahoo!, the Oslo Freedom Forum and many others.

In this conversation, I finally had chance to ask some of the questions I had always wanted to ask her. Including:

  • The day of her arrest – and what went through her mind as she heard those knocks on her door at 2am, while her 5-year-old son slept upstairs.
  • What she learnt about using her voice so publicly – against a structure or system that seemed impenetrable – and how she handled the inevitable backlash.
  • What it takes to not only start a movement – but to see it through to its conclusion. We tend to hear a lot about movements in their early stages, but not so much in the months and years later – when those at the frontline are still tirelessly fighting – often without resources, media or financial support.
  • How she handles the personal consequences of what happened. Including the impact on her career and her ability to see her children – and how she prepares every day to help her sons understand the decisions she made. Favourite part…
  • And why – for a large portion of the planet – we still live in a world driven by ‘rules that were written in our absence”- and what she now understands about how you start to question and then rewrite those rules.

Please be warned that some parts of this interview contain violent language and swearing. So I’ll leave it to you to decide whose ears should be listening.

For me, Manal is one of those individuals that – when she walks into a room – the clocks literally stop. Such is the palpable strength of her presence and conviction.

However, what I’d love you to reflect on here is not necessarily the size of her strength. 

It’s the smaller decisions. The moment by moment – day by day choices to commit and recommit. A favourite quote from the suffragette movement is that it is ‘deeds and not words’ that changes things. What aspect of the world around you right now seems broken, no longer useful or in need of a rewrite?

What deed, however large, could you undertake – or whose deeds can you actively support in the long term – to help get that change made?

That’s a question that’s very much on my mind at the moment.

On that note, sit back, cycle on, stride out, drive safe and enjoy my conversation with the undeniable force that is Manal Al-Sharif.

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