In May 2011, I drove a car in the city of Khobar, Saudi Arabia, to protest the kingdom’s ban on women driving. As a result, I was arrested, taken from my home in the dark of night and jailed for nine days, during which time I was interrogated, strip-searched and accused of being a traitor and a spy. I was released only after my father begged King Abdullah, the ruler at the time, to pardon me.
Many people in my country shunned me afterward. Clergymen called for me to be whipped, stoned, even killed. Within a year, I was forced to leave my job. Then, fearing for my safety, I left the country where I had been born and grew up, and where I had begun to raise a family of my own.
Women before and after me have also been arrested, lost their jobs and been jailed for the simple act of getting behind the wheel of a car.
We protested the ban on driving by women because its effects went far beyond cars and roads. The prohibition meant that we were unable to take our children to school; we could not drive loved ones to a doctor or hospital; we could not commute to a job or go to the grocery store on our own. The ban meant the loss of the most basic form of dignity and control over our lives.
This is why for the women of Saudi Arabia, Sept. 26, 2017, the day the monarchy announced that it plans to overturn the driving ban, will be remembered as our Emancipation Day. It is every bit as monumental for us as Aug. 18, 1920, was for American women, the date the 19th Amendment giving them the right to vote was ratified.
At last, Saudi women will have freedom of movement — and their say. Saudi society will never be the same again. From my friends living inside the kingdom, I hear a mixture of disbelief and joy. My email inbox is overflowing with messages of wonder. On my Facebook feed, I see my friends’ excitement. “Finally come true,” one friend wrote. Another dreamed bigger: “I hope all the laws would be reformed until we observe full equality between the sexes.”
American women fought for their basic emancipation during the heyday of the bicycle. The great women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony said that bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” The bicycle freed 19th-century women from their homes and from their dependence on men. I hope that in Saudi Arabia, the car will do the same.
In the Saudi system, women are considered inferior. No matter our age, we have male guardians. We must get permission from men to attend school, to work, to marry, to travel overseas — even to have basic medical procedures. My mother gave birth to me on the floor of our apartment in Mecca with only my toddler sister to help her because my father was at work and no male guardian was available to take her to a hospital.
I am certain that some parts of Saudi society will vehemently oppose women driving. In the last six years, official studies commissioned by the government have declared that women will damage their ovaries from sitting in the driver’s seat and will give birth to children “with clinical problems.”
In 2011, the year that I drove, an academic report prepared for the Saudi Legislature, the Shura, concluded that allowing women to drive would lead to societal rot, including “pornography, prostitution, homosexuality and divorce.” And just last week, a Saudi cleric, warning against women as drivers, claimed that women have only “half the brains of men,” adding that the figure drops to one quarter “when they go to market.”
This language may be shocking until you consider that 100 years ago, American suffragists peacefully asking for the right to vote were arrested, tortured, beaten, force-fed and locked in mental institutions. But they persisted, and they won. Like their American sisters, Saudi women have persisted, too.
We Saudi women have been like birds with clipped wings, full of song, but unable to take flight. That will change. Now we must become the driving force of our own destinies, able to make our own decisions. Our brains are 100 percent strong. We are fully capable of being our own guardians.
When I was forced to leave my country and my family, I dreamed of the day when I might return, not in an airplane, but by driving across the border and up through the desert to my home. Today I no longer have to dream. Next June, when the change in policy comes into effect, I plan to make that drive.
But for now let us take a moment to appreciate every woman who has done the impossible and gotten behind the wheel.
Manal Al-Sharif is a women’s rights campaigner and the author of the memoir Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.