An Unlikely Dissident

How a book, Twitter and the Oslo Freedom Forum transformed a New Jersey mom and writer into the most unlikely dissident.

“The Rain Begins with a Single Drop.”

Daring to Drive, Manal al-Sharif

“Just everyone, go read this book!” I tweeted @manal_alsharif this summer after I finished reading Daring to Drive. In response, Ms. al-Sharif suggested that I register for the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York so that I could hear her speak. I applied to attend, and, much to my surprise, received an invitation.

That’s how this ordinary mom, sometimes writer and attorney, from New Jersey ended up at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference on human rights attended by activists, journalists, artists, and entrepreneurs, that’s usually held in Oslo, but was in New York in late September 2017. The conference is often referred to as the “Davos for dissidents,” according to Thor Halvorssen, OFF’s founder, “except that it’s not Davos, it’s Oslo.” I spent the day at Alice Tully Hall listening to stories of incredible courage, strength, and heart simply because I read Ms. al-Sharif’s book, followed her on Twitter, and let her know how much I loved it. And, with good reason: her story is compelling. It’s about something that women throughout the world do every day – get in their cars and drive – that for her, was a radical act of protest as a woman in Saudi Arabia in 2011.

I could not fathom that Ms. al-Sharif’s decision to drive her car (that she bought and paid for) to the grocery store on May 19, 2011, landed her in prison for nine days. The secret police came for her in the dead of night. She broke no law; rather, she defied orf, custom or tradition. They had no warrant. She was not tried. She was freed only after her father and other male al-Sharif representatives petitioned King Abdullah who eventually ordered her release.

As I read Ms. al-Sharif’s story, I could not help but think of how many thousands of miles I have traveled in my car. I learned to drive at 16 with the three other girls in my driver’s ed class. I remember that delicious sense of freedom I had when I got behind the wheel. Once I had my license, I could go out when I wanted, as long as my mom and dad let me use the car. I didn’t have to depend on them to drive me anywhere. Even today, at 50, I think nothing of hopping in my car, shuttling my kids around, going to the grocery store, teaching my own 16-year-old son to drive, or driving to the train station so I could come to OFF in New York.

And now, Saudi women will be able to do the same. On September 26, 2017, one week after OFF, Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow women to drive, ending its longstanding policy criticized throughout the world. The change comes six years after Ms. al-Sharif’s courageous act and will take effect next June. Saudi leaders hope the new policy will increase women’s participation in the workplace, thereby improving the economy. According to Ms. al-Sharif, women currently must pay as much as a third of their monthly salaries to hire a private driver or must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, to the store, or to school.

Although I did not get to hear Ms. al-Sharif at OFF because she was unable to attend, my heart sings for her now. Her words, “Never underestimate the power of a determined individual,” shined last week on the on the rainy windows of Alice Tully Hall and rang true and clear throughout Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. Ms. al-Sharif’s words also resonated in the powerful stories of determined individuals that I had the privilege of hearing at OFF. Here are some others that spoke to me.

Witness

Take, for example, Marina Nemat. She was born in 1965, so she’s a year older than I. Her mom had a beauty salon; her dad was a ballroom dancer in Tehran, Iran. Marina grew up in a home filled with cha-chas and big hair. She was Christian. Her parents had a cottage on the Caspian Sea, where she would lie in the sun on the beach in a polka dot bikini as a young teen. She loved music, including the Bee Gees. Ms. Nemat was not so different from me. I spent my summers in Long Island at my aunt’s home on the water, lying on her dock in a polka dot bathing suit and listening to my favorite music. But after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ms. Nemat’s world changed. The tanks came, and the music and dancing ended. She explains, “Basically, having fun became illegal.”

Ms. Nemat did not go quietly. “Teenagers will rebel against the color of the wall,” she noted. But, at age 16, she wasn’t protesting house paint; she was demonstrating against the Ayatollah Khomeini’s repressive regime and wrote articles against it in her school newspaper. During that same year, I recall giving speeches about the Iranian revolution and the student protests at forensics tournaments, safely ensconced in high school classrooms in New York. My teammates and I won trophies for those speeches. Ms. Nemat’s actions won her reprisals: on the night of January 15, 1982, the police arrested her at gunpoint and took her to Evin Prison, the infamous political prison in Tehran, where she was imprisoned for two years and tortured.

Ms. Nemat recalls that, when her captors tried to handcuff her, her wrists were too small, and the cuffs slipped off. So, they used one cuff for both wrists and her wrist cracked as they locked the cuff. Ms. Nemat remembers being tied face down to a wooden bed; her shoes and socks were removed. The soles of her feet were beaten with heavy cable, “the most common method of torture in the Middle East.” The pain “disassembled” her brain. She could not think, and she could not count. She could not pray. “I sneeze, and I say a Hail Mary. How can I forget the words? But, my brain had fallen apart.”

Ms. Nemat asked, “What is the point of torture?”

It’s not to get information.

“I would have confessed I was a CIA spy.”

It’s not to kill.

“There are much more economical ways to kill people. Torture is hard work.”

Ms. Nemat explained, “Torture is designed to kill the human soul.”

But, it did not kill hers. Today, Ms. Nemat describes herself as a witness. She carries with her the memories of all of the young men and women who were tortured and executed in Iran. She remains hopeful that we can work together to make a difference in the world using whatever talents we have, one small step at a time.

Athlete

Consider, as well, Maria Toorpakai’s grit and determination. Ms. Toorpakai grew up in Waziristan, Pakistan, one of the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border. It is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, the home of the Taliban and birthplace to terrorists. Here, there are no schools; human rights are violated every day. “Women’s rights don’t exist,” Ms. Toorpakai explains. Women are bought and sold through marriages, “like property.” Education for girls is considered “a waste of time” – but not in her father’s house.

Ms. Toorpakai spoke with obvious admiration for her father, who was a strong advocate for equal rights and education for men and women. He defied the custom and tradition of the area and was shunned and even imprisoned for it. He wanted to see change in society, so he started in his own home. He educated his wife and two daughters privately. Ms. Toorpakai recounted that her father told her mother to put away her burka and that “her education would be her protection.” Today, Ms. Toorpakai’s mom is a school principal. Ms. Toorkapai’s sister was also “another experiment.” She was a championship debater, and now is the youngest Member of Parliament in Pakistan and a strong advocate for women’s rights.

But Ms. Toorpakai was different. She liked to run with the boys and often got into fights. Her father encouraged her to hide her gender identity so she could play sports, and called her, “Ghengis Khan.” By the time she was 12, could no longer be friendly with the boys of her childhood. Strong and independent, Ms. Toorpakai took up squash and began competing in tournaments internationally, and then started receiving death threats from the Taliban once her gender identity leaked. She had to take the threats seriously; it would have been the “biggest dishonor” to her father if she had been kidnapped. She would not disrespect all of the “friendship and love” her dad had given her.

She hid in her bedroom for three years. She played squash every day against the walls of her room, but realized that she needed to get out of the country if she wanted to continue to play. Today, Ms. Toorpakai lives in Toronto and is a professional squash player. When she looks back on her experience, she thinks that it’s a miracle that she is where she is now. Yet, she also believes that she is called to help other children, particularly through sports and education.

“It is our responsibility, being human, to stand up for humanity and justice. We have to be strong. We have to stand together,” Ms. Toorpakai concluded.

Able

The last story that I heard was that of Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea who currently lives in Seoul. Mr. Ji grew up during the famine in the mid-1990’s. In order to feed himself, Mr. Ji would steal coal from trains and trade it for food in the market. In March 1996, Mr. Ji lost consciousness from hunger and fell between two train cars. A train ran over him and severed his leg and three fingers of his left hand. His mother and sister brought him to the hospital where he underwent surgery to amputate his leg and hand without an anesthetic.

Over time, Mr. Ji became increasingly isolated and secluded because he could not work, and, as a disabled person, had no rights in North Korea. At one point, Mr. Ji crossed into China in search of food. When he returned, he was arrested and severely beaten. The police told him that he had brought shame on North Korea by being disabled and people with one leg should stay home. At this point, Mr. Ji knew he had to leave. In 2006, he crossed the Tumen River into China, carrying his wooden crutches, made for him by his father, over his head, with his brother pulling him to other side after he nearly drowned. Mr. Ji traveled 6,000 miles to freedom through China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and finally to South Korea, where he lives today with his surviving family. His father attempted to defect, but was caught, tortured, and died in prison. Today, Mr. Ji has prosthetics and is able to walk. He attended law school and is a human rights activist. At the end of his talk, he asked the audience to stand up, to stand together, as he raised his crutches in triumph above his head.

Dissident

Mr. Ji’s gesture echoed the words of Vladimir Kara-Muza, a twice-poisoned Russian opposition politician, who earlier in the day said, “In the end, when enough people are willing to stand up, they succeed. And then, the tanks stop and turn away.”

I have never stood in front of a tank. I have never been imprisoned. I have never been tortured. I have never been threatened with death for doing something I loved. I have never faced famine. I have never walked 6,000 miles to freedom.

Pray God, I never will.

But I can share these stories because they are important. They are worth hearing, and I am better for having heard them. I can bring them back to my little town in New Jersey. I can give my children perspective on what is real and what matters.

I can stand up.

I can answer the call, in my small way, to make the world a better place.

“We have to. Our lives are stake here,” said Ms. Nemat.

They are, indeed.

“The Rain Begins with a Single Drop.”

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