Manal al-Sharif Helped Legalise Women Driving In Saudi Arabia — But Her Activism Hasn’t Stopped There

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While most of us in the Western world might not think twice about the privilege of driving, women in Saudi Arabia weren't legally allowed to get behind the wheel until five years ago.
Leading the Women2Drive campaign for seven years, Manal al-Sharif is coined as one of the key activists in getting women driving in Saudi Arabia legalised. She was imprisoned in 2011 for "driving while female" after posting a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia. She was then pardoned on the condition of remaining silent, but later continued to publicly oppose the ban until it was lifted in 2018.
But al-Sharif's advocacy for women's rights doesn't stop there. She has a degree in computer science that looks at the intersection between human rights activism and technology. After all, it was social media — uploading her 2011 driving video to YouTube — that helped elevate her activism to a global scale.
The changemaker, who's been busy with several projects including The Ethical Technologists Society and her Tech4Evil podcast — will be one of several high-profile guests speaking at Australia's first-ever SXSW Sydney in October. While specific details of her session are still under wraps, she says technology will be a big talking point.
"It will be mostly about how democracies can protect human rights," al-Sharif tells Refinery29 Australia over Zoom.
"Usually, the technology is used in creative ways by dictators. It doesn't impact people living in democracies [it impacts them later], but it impacts people in vulnerable situations where there's no transparency or freedom of expression."
Of course, technology can be used for good, and she speaks about how technology has helped her to evoke change and have meaningful conversations in the past.
"I'm a computer scientist and I work in cyber security. So, we're like the police of the internet that help you have a safe experience when you go online," she explains. "Technology helped me in a heavily censored environment, Saudi Arabia, to find the truth and also to give me a voice when I was voiceless.
"We live in a country [Saudi Arabia] which is one of the last absolute monarchies and [with a] totalitarian regime. Technology gave us that window to the outside world to challenge our belief system and challenge the narrative in Saudi Arabia. So, I can see how it can be used for good."
While she's been living in Australia since 2018 in what she describes as a "self-imposed exile" from Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif keeps tabs on the challenges women face back home. Estimating that over 90% of the population there has access to high-speed internet, al-Sharif claims that this comes with high surveillance, and spyware and AI can put women's rights activists' safety and freedom of speech at risk.
But the struggle for gender equality is universal. It's just realised in different ways. Whether it's women in Saudi Arabia not being allowed to drive for so long, or women in Australia battling a gender pay gap, al-Sharif believes these issues stem from women being barred from key policy decision-making.
"When I immigrated [to Australia], I thought the fight was over," she says. "When I came to Australia, I was really shocked. I looked at the parliament and there were not many women in power. You look at the companies and mostly men are in leadership, and then I see women do not want to have kids because it's so expensive.
"What women go through around the world, whether in Saudi Arabia, whether in the first world or the Western world, I think it's just we are asked to live in a world with rules that were written in our absence," she explains. "We were not in the room when those rules were written."
From al-Sharif's perspective, this is what fundamentally needs to change. Women need to be involved to recreate a system that's inclusive "to women and anyone who's different". Pushing for the legalisation of women driving in Saudi Arabia may have been just one change in one part of the world, but as she puts it so eloquently, it symbolises how powerful the centring of women's issues and the empowerment of women can be.
"I always think that if driving and the car keys were the key to change, women's issues will be the key to change for all the other issues when it comes to diversity and inclusion."
The festival has just announced that SXSW Sydney is opening up to the public, with wristbands across all pillars going on sale to the public on Friday, August 25, exclusively at"
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