A simple two-line email – sent to me at the beginning of May from a mysterious account named “W2Drive” – was all it took to put Manal Al-Sharif and I on the same path. A group of Saudi women were now renewing the call that began in 1990, when an group of prominent Saudi women, mainly from academia and conservative Riyadh society, drove their cars. Their rebellious actions were in vain, for the country was on the verge of the first Gulf War, and it was easy to discredit their initiative; all it took back then was to proliferate conspiracy theories – alleging these women were pushing a foreign agenda, trying to Westernise the country and break the unity of the people.
The first campaign ended with the women involved severely punished, with a ban on work and travel that lasted for years. These women subsequently avoided any media attention for the following 20 years, putting a lid on their failed attempt. Since then, many have eagerly awaited someone to pick up that cast-off torch and finish what was started. Manal Al-Sharif was in a prime position to do just that. She is a successful, award-winning, US graduate of information technology, leading a career in a prestigious oil company. She is divorced with a four-year-old boy in her custody. She knows what it takes to be an independent woman in Saudi Arabia. She lives far from her parents and is committed to varying work hours, but most importantly, she can’t allow a personal driver to live in her apartment. Manal was angry and frustrated enough to upload YouTube footage of herself demanding the right to drive.