Driving Change: Aisha Almana, KSA leading activist for justice, equality, and respect for women

Original story featured in Oregon Quarterly By Melody Ward Leslie, BA '79

At a time when most Saudi women received little or no formal education, one future Duck set out on a quest that eventually led to a PhD. Then she returned home to become her country’s leading activist for justice, equality, and respect for women.

Aisha Almana, BS ’70, thought she was at the airport to see her father off. Instead, he led her to the plane and explained that he was bringing her to Egypt because their own country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had no schools for girls.

She was eight years old. Bursting into tears, she asked, “Where is my mother?”

Sheikh Mohammed Abdulla Almana knelt to be eye-to-eye with his daughter. “I don’t want you to be like your mother or your grandmother,” he told her. “That’s why I am taking you to be educated. I want you to come back and help the women of your country.”

With these words, he launched Almana toward a place in history as the mother of Saudi feminism.

Four years later, armed with a sixth-grade certificate of completion, she returned home to Khobar just as Saudi Arabia was opening its first schools for girls. All the teachers were wives of workers from non-Arab countries because most Saudi women were illiterate. Sheikh Almana wanted to set a precedent, so he installed his now-13-year-old daughter as the region’s first female school principal and gave her behind-the-scenes daily advice on how to run the school.

“All of the students were in the first grade, even though many were my age or older,” she says, noting that she worked as principal for one school year and then went to Lebanon to continue her education.

She has since achieved a series of firsts in a wealthy country that still denies women basic rights. To the outside world, she’s best known as a leader of the historic 1990 protest against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. The protest was Almana’s idea, and it grew out of her experiences as an undergraduate sociology major at the UO.

“The University of Oregon gave me the opportunity to recognize that I am a human being equal to anyone else,” she says. “I am a free soul, and I am my own driver.”

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