Friday, June 1, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Manal al-Sharif on The Drive to Freedom

She's even more famous for a video of herself driving than she is for her speaking. Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia, made waves in May 2011 when she recorded herself driving through the Saudi city of Khobar and posted the video on YouTube and Facebook. Viewed more than a million times in Saudi Arabia and around the world, the video also prompted her detention for nine days; she was released only after pressure from human rights groups, and only on condition that she post bail, come back for questioning on request, and refrain from driving or speaking to the media.

Fortunately, that ban didn't extend to public speaking, and al-Sharif was able to follow her imprisonment with this speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. For all that we westerners complain about women not getting on the program at conferences, we don't begin to face the limits placed on women in al-Sharif's country, where, as she says in the speech, "We were voiceless, we were faceless and we were nameless."  This speech is moving purely for its simple and straightforward description of the day-to-day limits placed on women in Islamic society--limits that al-Sharif accepted for a long time.

Women started to defy the ban on women driving in 1990. Those women were banished from the country, and driving was further outlawed for women, but the spark of their "drive to freedom" stuck with al-Sharif.  Of her own driving attempt, she says, "I used my face, my voice and my real name. I was there to speak up for myself. I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman. But not anymore." Her driving attempt led to even more women defying the ban--without arrest.

Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Step away from that lectern: She's not speaking in her native language and is relaying many dates, historical facts and complex issues, so al-Sharif uses a lectern and notes--but steps away from the lectern repeatedly to speak from the heart about her own experiences. You don't need notes and the safety of a lectern to tell a story from your past, so step out where we can see you. It helps her connect with the audience even more.
  • Share the unimaginable for us, and for you: While her western audiences may be trying to picture a world in which women can't drive, for al-Sharif, the unimaginable was the further shame heaped on her as rumors were spread about her after the incident, in an attempt to discourage her and others who might follow her--a common backlash when women speak out. She said: "That was the hardest thing: Not facing what I did, but facing the things I did not do."
  • Carry the analogy through: From the title "The Drive to Freedom" to her closing lines--"for me, the struggle is not about driving a car. It is about being in the driver's seat of our destiny"--al-Sharif uses the driving analogy wisely, not too well. It's used for greatest effect at beginning and end, but not to distract from the already powerful content that fills this speech. Resisting the urge to bang your analogy into the ground will ensure a more powerful punch in your own speeches.
Here's the video of al-Sharif's speech, and there's an interactive transcript included in the video post on YouTube:

 And here's the video of al-Sharif driving in defiance of the ban:

What do you think of this famous speech?