Driving attention to women's rights in Saudi Arabia

Manal al-Sharif is sometimes called "The Saudi Rosa Parks." She was arrested and imprisoned for driving while female in Saudi Arabia.

There is no public transit system in The Kingdom. And there is no mention of sex or gender in the Saudi traffic code.

Al-Sharif was punished for challenging something far more dire — tradition. She wrote about her experience in the book "Daring to Drive" and she spoke with MPR News producer Marcheta Fornoff about her experience.

Manal al-Sharif never set out to be an activist.

In fact, if you knew her as a teen, she'd probably be the last person you'd suspect to start a protest.

Back then, she stridently adhered to rules and made sure that her family followed them as well. She once melted her brother's Backstreet Boys cassettes in the oven in the name of protecting his salvation.

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As she got older, her perspective started to change.

Al-Sharif graduated from King Abdulaziz University. She had a good job at Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, and owned her own car.

Despite having a vehicle, she still had to rely on men for transportation outside of the Aramco compound where she lived.

Like many Saudi women, al-Sharif relied on family or car services to get around.

Eventually, she had to hire a driver. Many of the "professional" drivers for hire required room and board, and several were unlicensed (police frequently turn a blind eye to this practice).

The expense, inconvenience and unwanted attention from the drivers all took a toll on her.

One night, after a late doctor's appointment she was unable to find a driver. She had no other choice but to walk home in the dark. Drivers honked, yelled slurs and one car started to follow her.

When she got home she decided that she was going to drive outside of her compound. Later that year, she did.

Within hours of posting a video of herself driving on YouTube, it had hundreds of thousands of views. For this, she was arrested, imprisoned and ultimately released. Her life was drastically changed by her decision to drive. She left a job that no longer supported her and eventually moved out of the country.

People in Saudi Arabia used the blowback al-Sharif faced to make her into an example and to warn against following her corrupt example.

The warnings didn't work. "I'm happy to say I corrupted a lot of girls," al-Sharif said.

In spite of everything that happened in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif still loves her country. She hopes to return some day — and drive.

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