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Activist On Women's Rights In Saudi Arabia


Manal al-Sharif has spent this month driving across America, calling on Saudi Arabia to end what she calls its war on women. Al-Sharif made news eight years ago when she recorded and uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia when women were prohibited from that by law. She was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days. It is now legal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Many who campaigned for that right are still behind bars. There are reports that human rights abuses against them persist.

Manal al-Sharif ended her journey in Washington, D.C., this week and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MANAL AL-SHARIF: Thanks, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: Why drive across the United States? What do you hope to demonstrate with that?

AL-SHARIF: Oh, the best place for me to drive and bring media attention is in the country of our biggest ally of Saudi Arabia...

SIMON: Yeah.

AL-SHARIF: ...Which is the United States. And we have the first female ambassador in the history of Saudi Arabia. And she's assigned here in D.C.

SIMON: Well, and you stood outside the embassy on Friday, as I understand it. Any reaction from inside the embassy you saw?

AL-SHARIF: There was reaction on Twitter. Their spokesperson, while I was driving across country, he welcomed the opportunity of me meeting with the new ambassador.

SIMON: Is there any chance you'll meet with the Saudi ambassador?

AL-SHARIF: I am ready to meet her with the condition they release the women rights activists, who we're also to be thankful for their work when it comes to women's rights in my country.

SIMON: It sounds as if you're concerned that such a meeting just might be used for the current regime to show that they're trying to change things without actually doing so.

AL-SHARIF: When I was reading the statement, I was, like, very confused because the statement in English - they acknowledge that drive, and they invite me to meet her. And they knew the drive was to - for the women's rights activists in jail. They knew that.

So they tweeted in Arabic something completely different, that - they're saying I don't represent them, and I have no right to talk about them. So that was confusing to me. Like, you invite me in English, and in Arabic, you completely have a different statement.

SIMON: Did you have some hopes when Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017?

AL-SHARIF: I was one of the people, or the young Saudis, who really hoped for - we were desperate for change, and we hoped that a young leader of the country would understand us and would push for these reforms. But there were a lot of red flags outside Saudi Arabia. The war in Yemen was one of them. The embargo in Cuba was one of them. But the one when it moved inside by - when he locked all the intellectuals, putting their families under a travel ban. That was huge step back, and there was huge crackdown in human rights. When he start targeting woman activists, that was, I think, the straw that broke the camel's back.

SIMON: As you were driving this week, of course, Saudi Arabia executed 37 men convicted of terror-related crimes. A majority were Shia, three reportedly minors at the time of their arrests. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights said that the confessions that led to the executions were obtained through torture. What do you think that says about Saudi Arabia?

AL-SHARIF: It hurts that my country still executes citizens. These numbers are on the rise in the last three years. We were hoping that we are moving toward ending the death penalties in my country because it's really used as a political weapon against people. And that's why in my demands today in front of the Saudi embassy was the call for ending the absolute monarchy, the rule of one man, and calling for constitutional monarchy, the rule of law.

SIMON: Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif, thank you so much.

AL-SHARIF: Thank you, Scott. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARRIEM RIGGINS' "AFRICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.