As part of the Ewing Lecture series at Keene State College, Manal Al-Sharif presented “Live Free & Drive, in the Kingdom of Saudi Men.” The lecture focused on education, self-empowerment and Al-Sharif’s story.
Former editor of The Keene Sentinel Jim Rousmaniere helped bring Al-Sharif to campus for the Ewing Lecture series.
“…we were looking for something in the Middle East, something fresh from the Middle East – this was definitely fresh,” he said.
In 2011 Al-Sharif drove a car in Saudi Arabia and posted the video on YouTube. Women in her country are not allowed to drive. She said when she got behind the wheel, she did not set out to be an activist.
She even is against the word ‘activist’ explaining that she feels the title alienates people.
KSC senior Sara Myers said, “I think what came off as different was her ‘activism’ because her idea of it is just saying what you need to say and getting it out there, rather than trying necessarily to instill grandiose change.”
In April of 2009, Al-Sharif got her driver’s license in New Hampshire.
In her lecture, she said during her driver’s test she was sweating so much she had to wipe the palms of her hands on her thighs several times while at red lights.
Al-Sharif said while she was in New Hampshire, the largest culture shock she said she experienced was her sense of freedom.
Al-Sharif described this sense of freedom as “liberating.”
In Saudi Arabia women are considered legal minors, regardless of how old, and they always need an assigned guardian.
In her presentation she listed that women cannot travel abroad without permission from a man, they cannot study without permission from a man and when shopping, women cannot even try on clothes.
Program Manager for Diversity & Multiculturalism at KSC Kim Schmidl-Gagne said, “I’m always struck by how little – even though I try – how little I really know about countries and cultures outside of the US.”
KSC first-year Nicole Wood said, “I think the most shocking thing was the guardianship law and the fact that you [women] are not allowed to walk the streets alone; [they’re] not allowed to do anything without a male’s permission.”
When Al-Sharif returned to Saudi Arabia, she drove because she wanted to see what would happen.
The first time she got behind the wheel no one pulled her over, but the second time she drove by a police officer, which she said she did on purpose, and he stopped her.
They did not arrest her until later that day, when they came knocking at her door at two in the morning.
They took her from her house on the charge of “driving while female.” Nine days later they released her, which Al-Sharif believes is due to several politicians voicing their protest against the unjust arrest.
KSC first-year Micah Love said he was moved “when she spoke about her son and how, because of their laws or their government…she couldn’t drive him to the mall.” He said, “I think a lot of people don’t think about the rights that we have as US citizens.”
At the end of Al-Sharif’s presentation, Rousmaniere said he was impressed and interested by how she answered his question about what will impact social change in other cultures.
He explained, “…she brought up the matter of changing economics, where once you had this spigot of oil that supported everything, and now that whole structure of economics is changing, the country is going to have to change and there will be some social change that comes with it.”
Al-Sharif is set to present more lectures in the near future. Her plan is to be in Prague next and then voyage to Madrid.
After two years away from the media, her hope is to create more awareness for her cause through a project titled “One Million Miles for Saudi Women,” where people can log the miles they drove that day and dedicate it to the cause.
She said, “If you see social injustice in your society, you have to speak up, you have to change.”
Valerie Carpentier can be contacted at email@example.com