Saudi Arabian former computer security consultant Manal al-Sharif, arguably the most public face of those who oppose the Saudi female driving ban, got behind the wheel of a car in May of 2011 when she realized that nobody was taking action against the ban. al-Sharif's friend filmed that drive with an iPhone, put it on YouTube and watched it go viral almost immediately.
She speaks to the Wall Street Journal:
"'You know when you have a bird, and it's been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn't want to leave. It was that moment. [...] The opponents were saying that 'there are wolves in the street, and they will rape you if you drive.' There needed to be one person who could break that wall, to make the others understand that 'it's OK, you can drive in the street. No one will rape you.'"
Less than a week later, she drove again and was arrested by the an officer by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. She asked the arresting officer what law she broke. "You didn't break any law, you violated orf. (Custom.)
"Women's rights are nothing but a part of the bigger picture, which is human rights. Women are trusted with the lives of their kids, even serve as teachers and doctors, but they aren't trusted with their own lives."
During her childhood in a conservative Muslim family, al-Sharif saw the oppressive culture consume the lives of the adults around her: her aunt, who used to wear bright clothes and jewelry until she began to "listen to these fundamentalist lectures and cry, saying 'it's haram to show your face.' She cried and changed everything about herself."
"When I was a kid they sent brochures all around the country, with the names of the women and their house numbers, encouraging people to call them and tell them to come back to Islam. "They said these women had sex with American troops. They said they took off their hijabs and burned them."
Despite al-Sharif and her peers' efforts, not much of the big picture has changed. A visit to Saudi and Gulf officials by John Kerry earlier this month left al-Sharif frustrated. "He just praised Saudi Arabia for appointing 30 women to the unelected Shura council [which is] a fake body anyway, a powerless body. You can't praise something that's not tangible, that's merely a cosmetic change."
And back in November a tracking device on the kingdom's women was instituted to ensure that their husbands know if they attempt to leave the country.