Nearly six years ago, Manal al-Sharif was thrown into a jail with criminals for her apparent transgression of the Saudi law — she had dared to drive a car.
Even before the drive that sent her to prison, Al-Sharif had built a remarkable life for herself in a country that considers women as legal minors. In her 20s, the now 38-year-old was the only Saudi female IT security consultant and was working for the Saudi oil company, Aramco, as a computer security engineer. She worked there for 10 years.
In 2011, Al-Sharif uploaded a video of herself driving around the city of Khobar. Within a day, the video had been viewed more than 700,000 times and the activist was soon arrested for flouting the ban. She spent nine days in jail.
“I was called a whore and people accused me of corrupting Muslims... They called me all kinds of names,” she lamented, opening up about her ordeal that cost her job, her home and even the custody of her son.
Al-Sharif now lives in Sydney;. She emigrated to Australia with her second husband and youngest son. The IT consultant recently spoke out about the torment of being a woman in Saudi Arabia, a country where she says women are still being "treated as slaves."
“I come from a very private society where we live in closed windows, high walls and women are covered up," she told Daily Mail Australia. "It's very difficult for girls and women in Saudi Arabia to do anything without the permission from a male guardian."
After her arrest, she said became more aware of “special punishment reserved for the woman who speaks up” in the kingdom.
"The most horrific thing being in women’s jail wasn’t being in the jail. It was realizing how little we knew about the abuses others in jail go through, and they have no access to legal assistance or interpreters while on trial," Al-Sharif explained in a separate interview. "Many didn’t even know why they were there. It made my struggle seem so small."
Al-Sharif has now obtained a driver's license in Australia.
“It was the best $300 I spent. I was so happy. It's a liberating feeling,” she said.
She has since launched a campaign named the Women2Drive movement, which encourages women to apply for driving licenses, and when their applications are rejected they are advised to file lawsuits.
The activist also narrated her story in her new memoir "Daring to Drive."
In her book, she has tried to focus not too much on the movement, but her very personal experience of daring to live as a woman in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Sharif was among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World."