The resounding jingle of keys filled the air at Lincoln Center on Wednesday night — first just a few, and then hundreds — in a tribute to the hard-fought battle that gained Saudi women the right to drive.
Manal Al-Sharif, an activist who boldly fought for the right to let women take the wheel legally in Saudi Arabia, gave a fiery talk at the Women in the World Summit about the oppressive regime that rules her homeland, prompting the audience to stand with keys in hand and make a righteous noise.
The driving ban was overturned last year, but Saudi women have a long road ahead. They still need the permission of a male “guardian” to get a job, go to college, marry or travel abroad. “We call it the kingdom of men,” Al-Sharif said, describing how she grew up without the right to leave the house without her father’s permission.
“My father to this day has to give me permission to leave the country,” she said. “When my son turns 18, he will become my legal guardian.” The audience groaned. “I’m not kidding you. My son becomes my legal guardian.” She added with a laugh, “I will kick his butt.”
Al-Sharif now lives in Australia. “I’m in self-imposed exile because all my friends who fought with me are in jail today,” she said. Indeed, her fellow activists have been imprisoned and tortured — beaten, electrocuted and waterboarded. They remain behind bars, despite the lifting of the ban.
Journalist and filmmaker Safa Al-Ahmad joined Al-Sharif to speak out against the ongoing human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. “There are no rights for anyone,” said Al-Ahmad, who has spent her career making documentaries on the Middle East, covering historic protests in Saudi Arabia and bloody conflicts in Yemen. The Saudi regime does “not believe in the right of their citizens,” she told film director Alex Gibney, who moderated the discussion. “The structure right now is oppressing everyone, top to bottom.”
Everyone is taught to oppress people “lower” than them, Al-Ahmad continued, explaining that the country’s problems are not just a matter of gender, but of class. She made a point of noting that while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is getting a lot of press for his unthinkable crimes against dissenters, the oppression started long before his rule.
When dissenters get arrested by the police, she noted, they are “disappeared.” In other words, the authorities don’t tell the families about the arrest — the person simply vanishes. If families find out that a relative has been jailed, she said, they often stay silent, hoping that the person will be released if they don’t speak up. They’re afraid to go public, to criticize the government, she said, fearing the consequences for their relative.
Al-Sharif, who was once jailed herself for her activism on behalf of women drivers, before she managed to flee Saudi Arabia, said that the “biggest two exports of the country are oil and terrorists.” Men leave the country to “join ISIS and die,” she said. Women leave the country only if they can get male permission to do so. “That tells you a lot about my country,” she said.
In closing, Al-Sharif asked everyone to take out their keys, a symbol of one battle won. “Make as much noise as you can to honor the women of Saudi Arabia,” she implored the audience. And the keys rang out.
Additional reporting by Laura Macomber.