Born on April 25th 1979 in Mecca
women's right activist Manal Al-Sharif shot to international fame in May 2011 after filming herself driving in a youtube video which generated more than 700,000 hits on the first day. She was arrested and released for defying the ultra conservative kingdom cultural ban on women driving.
Senior government officials on multiple occasions, including King Abdullah
, went on record stating that the ban is not religious, but cultural, and that the government cannot impose women driving if the nationals do not accept it. It can be argued that the kingdom was going into more liberal social norms, however, it took a u-turn after the terrorist siege of Mecca by Juhaiman
in the late 70s, in which gun battles were waged and the Saudi army was sent in to reclaim the city. In the aftermath the government did not want another Juhaiman to emerge so it started to appease every ultra conservative and steered into their direction. Osama Bin Laden
could be considered another iteration of Juhaiman.
The current Saudi monarch King Abdullah is seen as progressive on social issues. He has successfully given women more rights by appointing women ministers. He fired any clerics who opposed him on gender mixing in public places. One known example is firing a cleric who opposed the King's newly opened co-educational KAUST
university. It’s a delicate balance to please both the clergy
and the population at large, and so far the majority approve of his decisions.
In the early 90s, the kingdom was more conservative, and a group of women defiantly drove. Public opinion was more against driving than today. Manal's defiant driving split the nation's public opinion into pro driving and against driving camps with a slightly higher majority going to pro driving. Although she was briefly imprisoned for a short 5 day detention, she continued her campaign on human rights grounds, the right of free movement.
Global recognition came from Foreign Policy magazine
, putting her on the top 100 global thinkers. Forbes
listed her as a woman who briefly rocked 2011. Time magazine
placed her in the top 100 influential people.