Monday, July 1, 2013

Manal al-Sharif: The woman who dared to drive

Two years ago, Manal al-Sharif did the unthinkable. She got into a car and drove across town. The Saudi Arabia native was challenging a long-held custom against women driving, which had somehow translated into a ghost law that never existed. Ms. al-Sharif expected some reaction from authorities, but not from her own people. 

Anyone who knows anything about Saudi Arabia is at best aware of the country's primitive treatment of women. If government officials have tried to overlook any archaic traditions in the remote likelihood they would magically disappear, there is always the religious police ready on the fly to enforce them. That's not to suggest that Saudi women are completely repressed. Many come from wealthy households and enjoy an extravagant lifestyle. They also hold notable degrees and work at good jobs. But instilled deep into the fibers of  Saudi culture is the belief that women are separate and unequal to their male counterparts. 

In her moving TedTalk attached below, Ms. al-Sharif describes the events that led to her brave decision. She talks about the incendiary reaction from fellow Saudis, men and women alike. She did receive some support, but it was tepid and weak, especially compared to the  violent suggestions that were offered from everyone as influential as the local clergy to acquaintances. But you can learn all that from the clip. What I want to highlight is my takeaways from her talk. 

What deserves immediate attention is her mention of fear. Ms. al-Sharif was afraid when she drove her car that day, but by facing that fear she became empowered. No longer was she at the mercy of oppressive customs and religious police. By looking fear in the eye, she was boldly claiming that she alone determined her fate and not the 'what-if's' that plaque most repressive societies.  She was willing to take this chance knowing the reaction would be harsh, and harsh is an understatement. She was labeled a prostitute and publicly humiliated - all for sitting in the driver's seat of a car. 

If Ms. al-Sharif's discussion reinforced anything, it was the power of cultural expectations. We can argue that this is the norm in a theocracy like Saudi Arabia, but what about the hardline expectations we still hold in the U.S. about women? I won't list them here again but although they're not as extreme as those held in Saudi, they are still powerful enough to prevent women from reaching their full potential in the workforce. 

Lastly, unity. Ms. al-Sharif makes an indirect reference on the importance of standing together. She never specifically  criticizes the attacks from fellow women, but the implication is there. Scrolling down the comments page underneath her TedTalk, many women were implying she was a traitor. Maybe there were a few brave enough to defend her, but they paled in comparison to the critics, who accused her of betraying her country and trying to destabilize Saudi culture. It's one thing to face resistance from old customs and ridiculous policies, but to listen to scornful feedback from your own gender is hurtful. This must stop. We need to become our top champions for equality, whether or not we agree with the process. 

I'm not done with this topic, but I'll stop here for now and allow you to form your own opinions on her journey. 

Here is the link to her talk: 
http://www.ted.com/talks/manal_al_sharif_a_saudi_woman_who_dared_to_drive.html

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