Saudi women’s rights activist who found freedom and horror on the internet


Born into a devout Muslim family in Saudi Arabia, Manal al-Sharif spent her childhood feeling that women were second-class citizens. In her small world, every piece of information she encountered was carefully organized, censored in such a way as to crush any spirit of rebellion.

Thanks to the Internet, which arrived in her country in 1999, she was able to dispossess herself of these inherited received ideas and understood the oppression under which she lived.

“Under an authoritarian regime, you are controlled by fear; you have a lot of questions, but no one will answer them, ”she said TechRadar Pro. “It pretty much describes my childhood in Saudi Arabia. “

“But when the Internet arrived, my questions were answered. It’s the power of technology to break through the black box people live in when they don’t have access to information.

Captivated by the internet and technology in general, al-Sharif pursued studies in computer science, becoming the first Saudi woman to specialize in information security, for which she has a considerable talent.

However, while the the Web is responsible for freeing al-Sharif from his intellectual prison, its relationship to the platforms it spawned is complex. She is torn between a respect for the Internet’s ability to spread knowledge and connect the far corners of the globe, and a very personal understanding of the hate it can sow.

The right to drive

While the advent of the internet paved the way for al-Sharif’s “enlightenment,” as she describes it, it was social media that gave her the first opportunity to stand up to authority.

al-Sharif says she understood the power of social media during the Arab Spring, a period in the early 2010s when a series of pro-democracy uprisings took place in the region, including in Arabia Arabia.

Meanwhile, dissidents have used social media not only to discuss and debate ongoing socio-political issues, but also to organize and coordinate, to maximize the impact of the protests.

Arab Spring

Protests in Yemen during the Arab Spring. (Image credit: Shutterstock / akramalrasny)

“It was interesting how social media gave us a voice,” al-Sharif said. “In a country where your opinions are not welcome, online anonymity has allowed me to challenge my belief system.”

“I was able to connect with activists around the world to exchange ideas and have discussions that would never have happened otherwise. Twitter was our virtual civil society, the parliament we never had. “

More importantly, the world was paying attention, she said. Very local issues, internationalized by social networks, which have shifted the balance of power in favor of the collective.

Drawing on this experience and eager for ways to effect change in his own country, al-Sharif identified an opportunity.

In Saudi Arabia at the time, women were not allowed to drive a motor vehicle. Instead, they had to rely on male companions for transportation, which placed significant limits on the freedoms of a divorced person like al-Sharif. In an attempt to break the taboo (as there was no real law against this act), al-Sharif took to the streets in her car, capturing the moment using her iPhone.

On YouTube, the video racked up 700,000 views in a matter of days, and more since. And the Facebook and Twitter accounts later created by al-Sharif became the basis of a community of hundreds of thousands of people under the banner: “Women2Drive”.

Saudi authorities later arrested al-Sharif at her home in the wee hours of the morning. The official price: driving as a woman. Before the arrest, al-Sharif was able to warn a friend that the police had gathered outside; he tweeted the arrest live, creating a social media storm.

During al-Sharif’s nine days of detention, the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia became a world history. Apparently Hillary Clinton heard about the arrest and called on the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry to lobby.

According to al-Sharif, social media played a role not only in raising awareness of the issue, but also in securing his eventual release. Saudi Arabia despises bad publicity, she explained, and social media was the perfect tool to create it.

“It wasn’t just about the right to drive, but the right to exist,” she told us. “Driving was but the most public act of disobedience; it was a priority every time you went out on the street, so it was a useful symbol.

In June 2018, the Saudi monarchy finally lifted the driving ban; a small triumph for al-Sharif and the Women2Drive movement, although the battle for women’s rights in the country continues.

However, social media has not always been a positive force in al-Sharif’s life. After her activism started to gain attention and the conservative media started covering the story, she faced a torrent of online abuse from people who thought she had dishonored herself. as well as his country.

Due to her newfound notoriety, al-Sharif was also “gently pushed back” from her post at the oil company Saudi Aramco, which had supported her desire to work in cybersecurity (which was highly unusual at the time), but didn’t want to take on the negative publicity itself.

“It was a high price to pay, but you lose battles to win wars,” she told us. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

Although al-Sharif had developed coping mechanisms to deal with criticism and vitriol online, she couldn’t stand the way dictatorial powers were starting to arm social media platforms.

In fact, al-Sharif deleted all of his social profiles in 2018, even if that meant cutting the line of communication with his thousands of followers. She did so live on stage during a speech at an EU summit in Stockholm, the day after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi state.

Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist assassinated by the regime in 2018. (Image credit: Shutterstock / Hany Mussalam)

When people like al-Sharif took to social media to discuss the murder and launch criticism of the Saudi regime, they were “cleaned up” by trolls and robots (known in Saudi Arabia as “flies”). “), she says. These automated accounts were designed explicitly to advance the monarchy’s agenda, intimidate dissidents, and silence any rumors about his role in Khashoggi’s murder.

In the weeks following the news of the assassination, here are some of the trending hashtags on Twitter in the country (translated from the original Arabic):

  • #Kingdom_of_Justice
  • #We_Renew_Allegiance_to_King_Salman_and_Mohammed
  • #I_am_Saudi_I_Protect_Saudi

Manal al-Sharif

Trending topics on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, October 2018. (Image credit: Manal al-Sharif)

Saudi Arabia is also not the only nation accused of abusing robot farms to sow discord, spread disinformation and crush its opponents. For example, Russia turned out to have used bots to manipulate voters ahead of the 2016 US election, which culminated in Donald Trump’s presidency. And China is known to have used fake Twitter accounts to disseminate pro-government messages during the recent protests in Hong Kong and the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I went from someone who completely believed in social media to someone who was horrified by it,” al-Sharif said. “During this period, I felt very desperate. Suddenly we had lost a platform that had given us a voice.

“The same tools we used to free ourselves were now being used for oppression. It was a profound discovery.

Where do we go from here?

Life after social media is quieter for al-Sharif, especially now that she lives in Australia in self-imposed exile. She says she has been out of touch with Saudi Arabia since she stepped down, but is otherwise happy to have the opportunity to reflect.

Despite his views on the companies that run the world’s largest social media and internet platforms, al-Sharif remains optimistic about the prospects that the company may find a way to harness their advantages. and control their destructive potential.

After leaving her position as CISO at the University of New South Wales, she turned to a new project: the Ethical Technologists Society, an organization she founded to raise awareness of digital rights violations. She also launched a podcast, titled Tech4Evil, in which she addresses the abuse of centralized power, surveillance capitalism, data confidentiality and other related matters.

When asked how she would start solving problems with current internet models based on algorithms and ads, al-Sharif explained that problems can only be solved through conversation. She says technologists are guilty of speaking the language of technologists, but now it’s important to get the message out to a wider audience.

“At the end of the day, people have to boycott companies that betray their trust. These companies have become what they are thanks to the power of the network, ”she tells us. “We don’t want to lose the power of technology, but neither do we want people to give up their digital rights for the sake of convenience. There is a stable environment. “

Manal al-Sharif

(Image credit: Manal al-Sharif)

Although the money is limited and his plan is not yet fully fleshed out, al-Sharif and the Ethical Technologists Society will strive to create an “ethical technology index” to help people make informed decisions about what to do next. companies they interact with. She imagines that such a system could also be used to hold tech companies accountable for the consequences of their actions.

The organization will also push for greater transparency in the sector. al-Sharif reserved some praise for Twitter, which recently launched a service which highlights all the requests for information it receives from governments, and Reddit does not something similar. But she says these companies need to go further, providing full access to their algorithms for independent audit, especially Facebook.

There are also micro-rebellions that anyone can practice, she says, to minimize the hold of Big Tech. For example, boycotting Google search to deprive the company of advertising revenue, or always using a VPN and private browser to protect internet activity from prying eyes. Isolated, these acts are inconsequential, but en masse could start to create noise.

The way out of the labyrinth created by Internet abuse is not yet clear. For every solution to the complex problems in question, there is an equally compelling and legitimate counter-argument. But al-Sharif is confident in the ability of technology to pull us out of this situation, just as she did when she was young.


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