Guy Adams interviews Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi Arabian woman who became famous around the world last year after posting on YouTube an eight-minute video of her steering a car through the streets of the city of Khobar, railing as she went against the misogyny of laws that make it illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive.
We meet in Norway, where she has just given a barnstorming speech to the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of global human rights activists. A film of her extraordinarily moving presentation, which received an ovation, hit YouTube last week. A quarter of a million people have already watched.
“After I was invited to speak here in Oslo, I asked for four days off and my company refused,” she says of her sacking. “My boss called me and said, ‘If you are going to talk at another conference, you could lose your job. You are not allowed to go. We don’t want our name to be associated with you’.”
Ms Sharif went anyway and, at 33, now finds herself jobless and homeless (her flat was owned by Aramco). A lesser woman might feel ground down by that pressure but, looking impressive and poised in her very un-Saudi business attire, she seems energised instead. In a hotel lobby, she angrily rattles through the daily indignities of life in a country which, despite her university education and high-flying CV, forces her to live according to a set of ultra-conservative Islamic protocols which hark back to the Dark Ages.
The lot of Saudi women is shaped by Wahhabism, the most unbending form of the Muslim faith, she explains. The Koran is effectively her nation’s constitution and gender apartheid is a cultural obsession. Shops, restaurants, schools and workplaces are sexually segregated, while strict rules, enforced by shadowy religious police, govern every aspect of a woman’s existence.
“I’m a single mother and I’m 33 but it’s hard to even rent my own apartment without getting my father to sign a piece of paper saying he gives permission,” she says. “I went to renew my passport the other day and they told me to come back with my male guardian. That is life, for a Saudi woman; wherever we go, whatever we achieve, we are the property of a man.”
A Saudi woman who is beaten or raped by her husband and goes to the police must bring that husband along to formally “identify” her, she adds. Saudi women are forbidden from playing competitive sports and are not due to get the vote until 2015.
The irony of Ms Sharif’s life is that she has a deeply conservative background. Born in 1979, she grew up in Mecca, the holiest of holy cities. Her working-class home had separate entrances for men and women. As a child, she remembers burning her brother’s pop cassettes in the oven after mullahs told her music came from “Satan’s flute”.
Later, at university in Jeddah, her class of 60 women was taught computer science in a segregated campus, by professors lecturing from remote locations via closed-circuit television. In keeping with convention, she wore a vast black niqab and long gloves.
Her life changed, almost overnight, on 9/11, orchestrated by her countryman Osama bin Laden. “The extremists told us it was God’s punishment to America,” she recalls. But on the news that evening, she was sickened by footage of office workers jumping from the twin towers. “I said to myself, ‘something is wrong. There is no religion on earth that can accept such mercilessness, such cruelty.'”