OSLO — In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif did something revolutionary: She drove a car.
In most societies this would be far from noteworthy, but in Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from getting behind the wheel, it was an act of extraordinary courage. The protest, which she put on YouTube, landed al-Sharif in jail for nine days. It also made her an international figure. In the last year, she has been named one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine and one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of 2012.”
And last week, the 32-year old Saudi was one of three people awarded the first annual Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
To attend the conference in Norway, al-Sharif says she was pressured out of her job at the Saudi oil company Aramco. Considering she is a working-class single mother, it couldn’t have been an easy decision to continue her human rights fight in the face of such economic pressures. But, as al-Sharif told The Daily Caller, “if you stand up for your beliefs, there is a price to pay.”
“They pressured me a lot and it was like too much to take,” she said, explaining that while she was not explicitly fired, she was increasingly marginalized at the company for her activism, leading to her exit after coming into conflict again with her bosses over attending the conference.
After first stating that she didn’t “want to talk about” the pressure she has suffered under since her Rosa Parks-like act of defiance, she conceded that the Saudi government does “pressure you a lot, whether directly or indirectly.”
“So they can cause a lot of trouble,” she went on. “They scandalize you, they smear you … they spread all these rumors about you … But it’s up to you how to deal with that pressure. The more pressure it is, the more attacks I get, the more impact I know that I’m making.”
During a presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum, al-Sharif explained how she sympathized with Islamist radicals growing up in Saudi Arabia until two events helped change her perspective. The first, she said, was gaining access to the Internet in 2000.
“It was our first window to the outside world, and I was very curious,” she said in her speech.
“I started talking to other people, raising questions. I began to realize how very small the box I was living in was. I started losing my phobia of having my pure beliefs polluted.”
The second major turning point in her intellectual evolution was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“They said it was God’s punishment to America,” she said. “I was confused, and didn’t know how to feel. Then on the news, I saw this picture. It was of a man, who threw himself from the towers to escape the fire. I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Ultimately, she concluded that “no religion on earth should be like this.”
“When al-Qaida took responsibility for the attacks, I realized my heroes were nothing but bloody terrorists,” she said.
WATCH: Manal al-Sharif speaks
Today, she continues to fight a difficult battle for more rights for women in the oil-rich kingdom. Dressed in a headscarf, al-Sharif talks like a feminist, but unlike in the United States, discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia is the rule, not the exception.
The discrimination, al-Sharif said, is enforced under the pretext that the Saudi theocracy is “protecting you from the prying eyes” of men, she told TheDC.
“This is wrong,” she said. “We want our rights … Dignity — that’s what we want.”
Al-Sharif said she would like to see her country become a constitutional monarchy. But under the current undemocratic system, she says her only option to spur change is the type of activism in which she is currently engaged.
“They don’t need us — 95 percent of their income comes from oil,” she said, explaining the dynamic between the monarchy and their millions of subjects. “They don’t need us. So the only way to change — and we don’t have parties, we don’t have parliaments, we don’t have any of these things … So who is going to defend our rights? Us.”
Despite the tremendous international reaction to her act of defiance, al-Sharif told TheDC it wasn’t carefully planned. Rather, it was “spontaneous.”
“The Arab Spring was going all over the Arab world,” she said, explaining the context of her decision. She said she felt the need to stand up for the women in Saudi Arabia who are “voiceless, faceless and nameless.”
“We’re here. We have a face and a name and we want rights,” she said.
But al-Sharif doesn’t see significant immediate changes coming to Saudi Arabia anytime soon.
“We’re changing it for the next generation,” she said. “I don’t think in our generation.”
Editor’s note: The Oslo Freedom Forum sponsored TheDC’s trip to the conference.