Saudi human rights activist risked losing her job by choosing to go to Oslo

Saudi human rights activist Manal Al Sharif

By Iqbal Tamimi

 The 33 year old Saudi human rights activist
was put to the test when her boss forced her to make the tough decision between
her job and attending an event held in Norway where she can share her experience of fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

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When Manal Al-Sharif requested a
four days leave from ARAMCO, where she worked for over a decade to attend
2012 Oslo freedom Forum
her Manager told her that if she insists on her plans of
travelling to Norway, she will lose her job.

Manal al-Sharif, the divorced
Saudi woman, mother of a six year old boy and human rights activist was invited
to Oslo ​​to participate in the annually held international event to celebrate
freedom and to deliver a speech about her experience in defending women’s
rights in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Sharif who dared on the 20th
of May of last year to drive a car in the city of Khobar, in eastern Saudi
Arabia, in defiance of the driving ban on women caused a stir when over 600
thousand people watched her short video on YouTube. Following that, Sharif was
detained for nine days and accused of inciting to breach the public order.

Since that incident, Sharif led a
campaign entitled ‘I will lead my car myself,’ thus attracting the attention of
Western media. The ‘Time’ and ‘Foreign Policy’ magazines listed her as one of
the most influential figures in the world.

Defying traffic laws, and organizing
a group of women drivers and launching her initiative ‘my right of dignity’
have not passed without problems. She received many threats on Twitter adding
to her worries about the safety of her family members, especially her six year
old son. Even reputable news agencies such as AFP fill in the trap and
circulated a story about her death in a traffic accident. She claims Saudi
sources have persuaded the French news agency that she was killed in a car
accident, but Sharif contacted her 90 000 followers on line to deny the news. Al
Sharif commented on the rumour by saying whoever circulated this lie wanted to
portray the incident as a punishment from God because she dared to challenge religion.

Still, Al Sharif made it to Oslo
and delivered a speech before a huge audience about women’s struggles and the oppression
they suffer in Saudi Arabia, be it religious persecution, at schools, by media,
in public life and by the police of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of
Vice. She told the audience about suppression of media freedoms and the fact
that women are perceived as ‘Awrah’, a term that means in Arabic, the intimate
parts of the human body that must be covered from the sight of others with
clothing, and also means “defectiveness”, “imperfection”,
“blemish” or “weakness”.

As any woman living in Saudi
Arabia, Al Sharif suffers the unfair sexist laws, discrimination based on
gender in a male dominated society, especially when she is a divorced single
parent, making the life of a woman even more difficult, since a woman in Saudi
Arabia can’t even rent an accommodation without a written and signed permission
by a male guardian.

According to Al Sharif, it was a
trip overseas to USA in 2009 that has changed her life, when she was requested
by Aramco, the company she works for, to hold a temporary post at its offices
in the city of Boston.

While working in USA, she discovered
how does it feel to be able to open a bank account without the hurdles of
trying to convince a male guardian to accompany her or give her permission, and
to be able to sign a rent contract without having to request the permission
from a male, most of all, she managed to drive a car.

She thought to herself this is
the life women in Saudi Arabia should be living. She told the Oslo audience ‘a
woman raped or beaten up by her husband in Saudi Arabia can’t file a complaint at
the police station without being accompanied by her husband to verify her
identity. Women are banned from sports activities participation in Saudi Arabia
and Saudi women have to wait until 2015 to be able to vote’ she said.

You can listen to Al Sharif in Oslo in this video

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