Change can happen in Saudi Arabia

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(CNN) A couple of hours before the news broke that the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was finally being lifted, rumors had circulated that a decree on a women’s issue was coming.

I suspected it could be about the driving ban, but after years of campaigning to no success, I had nearly lost hope in it ever happening.

For the past few of weeks, friends of mine have been planning parties in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam to commemorate 27 years since the first protest against the ban. Since November 6, 1990, Saudi men and women have paid hefty prices for voicing their opposition to the ban on women driving in our country.

The unnecessary sacrifices of so many people crossed my mind as I read the tweets issued by the Saudi Press Agency announcing that the ban had been lifted.

The manner in which the ban was lifted seemed too simple to be real…READ ON


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Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening


I’ve just read Manal Al Sharif’s book Daring to Drive. I’ve known that it was in the works for a few years now and I had expectations and so did many other Saudis. We discussed and speculated about what she would mention. In my conversations with her, Manal dropped some hints about what she was writing about. However, the actual book is nothing like what I anticipated. I expected that it would be a more general narrative on what it’s like for Saudi women; a more geographically parochial version of Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens. I thought it might focus more on what happened in 2011 and its aftermath. In actuality, the book is a shockingly intimate close-up examination of Manal herself. With childlike sincerity, Manal tells what it was like growing up poor in Makkah and of her volatile childhood home environment. She even recounts her botched circumcision and how the governmental school system at the time was able to radicalize her as it did with many others of our generation.

She begins the book with her arrest as a starting point and from there goes back in time to explain everything that changed her into the Saudi woman who dared to drive in 2011. She eventually brings her biography back to her time in a Saudi prison and the inhumane conditions and forgotten women she witnessed inside. Finally, she ends the book with her mother’s passing away, her marriage, her new baby and all the obstacles that she currently faces because she dared to drive. I also appreciated some of the lighter topics that came up including how shocked she was that people in New Hampshire didn’t like it when it rained.

I enjoyed the weather. I had not seen rain for three years before I arrived in New Hampshire, and the first time it rained, I was so excited. When Saudis see rain, our first impulse is to run outside. I jumped up and down in the office, yelling “It’s raining, let’s go outside.” My co-workers looked at me as if I were crazy. In Saudi Arabia, we pray for God to send us the rain as a great mercy. In New Hampshire, people wished for the rain to go away. I never stopped loving each rainy day.

Manal is famous for her aphorism the rain starts with a drop.

I loved reading about Manal’s two encounters with Wajeha Al Huwaider. I’ve never met her, but as a pioneer of women’s rights in Saudi, she’s had an enormous influence on many of us.

We honked the horn and I texted her that we were out front, and she practically ran out the door. She looked very different from the day we had met for coffee, and yet she still made a statement. Her hair was neatly concealed beneath a black hijab, but she had on bright pink abaya. Saudi women rarely wear anything but black abayas in public. When I saw Waheja in pink, I giggled, thinking that she was even more fearless than me. No doubt, she was thinking that if we got arrested, at least she’d look stylish.

One last thing I liked about Manal’s book is that it documents more evidence against a common misconception about the Saudi ban on women driving. Many people believe that it’s a misogynistic male construct targeting women. Throughout her confessional, Manal details how many Saudi civilian men helped and encouraged her, and the people who attempted to discourage, stop and punish her were and still are mainly governmental or government affiliated. The ban on women driving is imposed by the government and, just like with the religious police, can be kept and removed ad libitum.

I won’t give any more away, but I have to say that I loved the book. It was clearly written from the heart. I only knew of Manal after she had been arrested. I wrote about it at the time. Since then, I’ve met and talked with her a few times. I knew a little bit about her background but felt that we had a lot in common since both of us are educated professional Saudi women of the same age and who also happen to be mothers. Since reading the book, I learned how different we are and it has made me think of how heterogeneous Saudi society at large is.

Female Genital Mutilation was something I only learned of as an adult. I wasn’t circumcised, and neither was my mother nor either of my grandmothers. Because Manal was born in a family living on the West coast and because her mother was from North Africa she was far more likely to be circumcised than the majority of Saudi women elsewhere in the country.

Unlike her, I’ve never went through a fundamentalist phase. Even as a child I was immune because I was repulsed by the similarities I saw between the self-righteous certainty of both Kansas Christian evangelists and Riyadh Muslim fundamentalists. As I’ve never been a student at a Saudi public school the closest I got to see what it’s like at Saudi governmental schools was during the two semesters of teacher training that I had to undergo at a local public school.

Despite our differences, I too witnessed the 1990s radicalization of people around me in my corner of the Kingdom. I also was exposed to the religious pamphlets that were distributed for free everywhere. I too managed to save some including one by Sheikh Mohammed Al Arefe on the global conspiracy to corrupt Saudi Muslim women.

Arifi booklet

Cover of Al Arefe’s booklet Scream at the University Cafeteria

I also was affected by Manal’s insights into the contradictions between what was preached and what was practiced. I’ve listen to my cousins and friends talking about how much they regretted burning their family and wedding photo albums. I was lectured to and bullied for my “liberal” ways, and my piety was called into question on many occasions back then. I had school classmates who demanded that I prove I knew how to pray properly by reciting my prayers aloud. I had neighbors, and even relatives, ban their daughters from socializing with me because my father had a reputation for being a liberal. In reality, he’s about as liberal as Mad Men’s Don Draper. If I had known the conservative Manal of back then, it’s highly unlikely that we would have become friends. It was a dark time for everyone regardless of whether or not they were indoctrinated by the fundamentalist rhetoric of that era.

You can purchase Daring to Drive from the publisher directly in a hardback, ebook or audio format by clicking here. Or you can order it from Amazon.


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U.S. 2016 election results in Saudi


“Go back to the kitchen.”

Saudi Arabia is a young country both historically and demographically. It’s an absolute monarchy that was declared in 1932 with over 70% of its current population under the age of 30. Despite our young population’s high education and a 70% internet penetration, national political participation remains limited. It’s no surprise that Saudis enjoy spectator political participation. Local social media followed the American election closely. Our Arabic news channels’ coverage could compete with their American counterparts. And just like most people in the world, Saudis were entertained when Trump announced his candidacy. The likelihood of his winning was considered slim, and when pitted against a seasoned politician like Clinton, Saudis took her upcoming presidency as given. One of the first Saudis to do an about-face and tweet congratulations to Trump is HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

The shock of Trump’s victory did not inhibit Saudis from expressing themselves. Within minutes of the announcement, Whatsapp, Snapchat and Twitter accounts shared memes expressing dismay, fear, banality, and even joy. Many expressed their indifference with a meme of a merged Trump and Clinton face stating that they are two sides of the same coin. Others likened him to the Prophet Mohammed’s hostile half-uncle. In the Quran, the half-uncle is cursed as the father of flames and his wife the bearer of the wood.  So it goes the bearer of the wood lost to the father of the flames to express the candidates’ perceived animosity to Saudis. My favorites are one where Saudi men in traditional dress are running in horror from a giant Trump in the background and a Snapchat photo of a Saudi college student in the US anxiously watching the election numbers come in with a suitcase packed and ready to go.

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A reaction that was to be expected was the thrill of ultra-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists at the fact that the United States had not elected a woman. A meme on how Clinton started an Instagram account to sell her cooking, a popular income generator among Saudi women, went viral. A Saudi Twitter news account boasting over 1.6 million followers euphorically tweeted : “A message to those calling for abolishing the male guardianship system: The results of the American elections are expected for a country as strong as the USA would never allow a woman to lead.” They soon deleted it, but the same text remained on their Telegram channel.

Soon after, Saudi political analysts began to put in their two cents. Mohammed Al Alshiekh optimistically wrote for Al-Jazirah newspaper about how American foreign policy will be in Saudi’s favor under a Trump presidency. He claims that the Democratic party has always been bad for the region and Saudi in particular and that the Democrat “whose father came from the jungles of Africa is the worst of them all.” Al Alshiekh blames Obama for the Arab Spring and calls him its “spiritual father.” He predicts that a Trump presidency might lead to a cancellation of the Iranian nuclear deal and at the very least a less civil administration to Islamic sectarian factions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the highly influential Jamal Khashoggi wrote for Alhayat newspaper about his uncertain Trump presidency outlook. The piece was so widely shared among Saudis that it contributed to the Saudi Foreign Ministry issuing a statement reminding people that Khashoggi’s opinions do not represent the government’s position. In Khashoggi’s piece, he forewarns that a president Trump is the same as the candidate Trump and that Trump has consistently held his current seemingly wild views for over two decades. Khashoggi points out that Trump is an extreme right wing populist who probably only thinks of the Arabian Gulf Countries as oil wells. His worst-case scenario is that a Trump presidency might lead to an American-Russian collaboration in the Middle East and the best-case scenario is that Trump’s advisers convince him to create an effective coalition with Middle Eastern Sunni powers to fight ISIS and bring stability to the region.

Currently, Saudis are closely watching Trump’s statements and choices for advisers and administration. While some are celebrating the likely new CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s comments about undoing the Iran nuclear deal, others are wary of Mike Flynn’s likening Islam to a cancer. Trump’s statements on how he’ll wean the United States off of Saudi oil drew an apt comparison to King Faisal’s oil embargo threats. Meanwhile, many are content admiring the new first lady and Ivanka Trump. Naif Alsalam even wrote a poem on how “for Trump’s daughter sake he’s not upset about the win and that he’ll forget all their differences. He goes on that “Ivanka governed humanity’s hearts long before her father governed the states.”


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If I could describe Madeha Al-Ajroush in one word, it would be pertinacious. She is the only Saudi woman to take part in all the protests against the women driving ban since the first one in 1990 and right up to the most recent October 26th Women Driving Campaign.

madehaShe has always been consistent in that all human beings deserve respect and the freedom to live with dignity. Al-Ajroush worked with Prof. Hessa Al Shiekh to initiate what today is known as the Family Safety Program. They had to secede because they were insistent on it being a nation-wide program that not only provides support for domestic abuse victims but also trains and holds the police and courts accountable for how they receive and treat these victims. Over the years Al-Ajroush has had several occasions where anyone else would have capitulated to governmental and societal pressures. She has had her house raided by investigators, she was banned from travel, and she’s been fired. All this because of her outspokenness for women’s rights.


During her spare time, Al-Ajroush has managed to create one of the first private therapy practices in Riyadh and probably the only one that specializes in gender orientation. She has also published three photography books. I was lucky enough to assist in translating her latest book, reSURFACE. In this book, she showcases pictographs of women in Saudi that date back thousands of years. Many of the petroglyphs included in the book are from the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Hail Region. Others are from all around the Kingdom. These petroglyphs are evidence that women were not always relegated to the proverbial backseat. The women are depicted as deities, queens, and dancers. Besides the gorgeous and provocative photographs that fill this book, it also includes accounts of the challenges and surprising hospitalities Al-Ajroush encountered in reaching these desert caves and mountains.

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Next week Al-Ajroush will launch her book at Alãan Artspace in the heart of Riyadh. You can hear her in person talk about the book and what it took to get it from a dream to reality in this misogynistic desert nation.



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Adopt Skylar


 My sister rescued this male dog from abusive kids in the street. His name is Skylar, and he is highly intelligent and has a great sense of humor. He is friendly, playful, and fiercly loyal . Skylar is vaccinated and we had him checked out completely and the blood test came out perfectly healthy. All he needs is a loving home. If you are serious about adopting him please send an Email with your details and contact info to


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My piece in Newsweek: No Sacred Space


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its third round of municipal elections. The first round was held in 2005 to much fanfare, whilst the second was slated for 2009 but in fact delayed until 2011. Women were excluded in those first two municipal elections. The participation of women only became possible this third time around, after a royal decree by Saudi’s previous ruling monarch, King Abdullah.

With the exception of the inclusion of women, these elections faced a great deal of apathy, mainly because they are elections for municipalities that only concern urban development. Some see it as a distraction from demanding basic rights and more influential political participation. Others believe that these elections are held mainly for international media consumption to improve Saudi’s image abroad. Moreover, the elections are only for two-thirds of local council seats while the other third, as well as the head of the municipality, are appointed by the government. Thus, potential winners are unlikely to have much executive power. This has not stopped candidates from making promises and running under manifestos that show that they aspire for much more than they have the authority to deliver. Some of these include the promise to open up employment opportunities and to end corruption. CLICK HERE TO READ ON


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F.A.Q. About the Saudi Women Driving Ban

Today, November 6th, is the 25th anniversary of the first protest against the women driving ban in Saudi Arabia. On this occasion, it’s apt to answer all those questions Saudis usually get when the ban comes up:

Why is there a ban on women driving?
Any answer is pure speculation. The government arrests and/or punishes not only women who drive but also anyone who attempts to raise this issue. Simultaneously, all official statements concerning the ban claim it is a societal issue that the government does not want to interfere with. The Minister of Foreign Affairs insisted that it is a societal ban and not governmental when asked by British journalists in 2007.

It has no basis in religion. Even the most extremist interpretations of Islam such as ISIS’s do not ban women from driving. Even if an Islamic reason is forced, it should not lead to a government ban. There are fatwas against health insurance, against women working in hospitals, against women being alone with a driver…etc. These things and others are not only legal but also practiced by members of the religious establishment despite the fatwas.
The only answer that does make sense is the financial aspect. Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud wrote a breakdown of this last year in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper, and I’ve translated it in the previous post.

Why don’t the Saudis who protest the ban go through the proper channels?
They have gone through the proper channels over and over again. The Royal Court has been bombarded with petitions requesting the ban be lifted since 2003. These petitions never get a response or even acknowledgement. The Shura Council rejected proposals to discuss the ban in 2006, 2011 and 2013. Aziza Al-Yousef and Hala Al Dosari even had a meeting with the Minister of Interior (albeit via closed circuit TV), and he told them that the Ministry has no executive power in these matters and that it is completely up to the King. However, the Ministry is the source of statements banning women from driving, and Saudi Kings have repeatedly stated that this is a matter for society to decide.

Why won’t those protesting the ban quiet down to give the Saudi government a chance to seem like it came to the decision on its own?
This approach has been attempted by activists over several years. They are promised indirectly through official statements and directly through private conversations with officials that the ban will be lifted soon. “Quiet down until after Ramadan” is a favorite of these officials. On and off, over the years, these promises and in return lulls in activism occur with nothing to show for it.

Why won’t more women just drive their cars to protest?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of women have driven both in protest and because they have no other option. The numbers are low for two reasons. The first is the risk of arrest is real. Cars are impounded; women are imprisoned, fined, lashed and even threatened with terrorism charges for public incitement. The second reason is that it is difficult for women to learn how to drive in the first place. Even neighboring Gulf countries make it difficult for Saudi women to obtain licences out of respect for the Saudi government.

Traffic in Saudi Arabia is already a problem, what would happen if women also drove?
Lifting the ban on women driving will help ease traffic. Due to the ban, there are millions of expatriate men in the country simply to drive women around. These drivers are using the roads twice and thrice more than if women were to drive their own cars. For example, when I need to get to work (a 40-minute commute), I use the roads twice, once in the morning and a second in the afternoon. The rest of the time my car is parked outside my office. However, because I am required to export and employ a foreign man to drive my car, we use the roads twice as much. Currently, he drives me to work, then drives back home and then drives to my office a second time that day to pick me up and drive me home. This is if we falsely assume that the driver will drive straight home and not use the roads for his errands and even joyrides. Traffic is only one downside of the ban on women driving. There’s also the economical, environmental, and societal impact of needlessly having all these strangers take up space on our roads and in our homes.


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The iniquity of imposing a ban and fees

One of the biggest misconceptions about Saudi Arabia is that the ban on women driving is societal. As a matter of fact, women driving is only prohibited in the cities. In traditional rural areas, women drive with no objections by society or government. If tribes living their traditional lifestyles in their villages have no objection to women driving, why would their more modern urban counterparts object? The answer is they don’t either. Women and men across the country have defied the ban either by driving or speaking out with no societal consequences but rather governmental. People have been suspended from their jobs, imprisoned and banned from travel simply for wanting the ban lifted. There is no definite answer as to why the government will not allow each woman to choose for herself whether or not to drive. However, there have been a few analyses as to why the ban is so strictly implemented. One of these is this article by Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud published in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper on 19/July/2014. Here I’ve translated it for everyone:

Screenshot 2015-09-26 22.59.22

Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The campaign Women Driving is More Chaste addresses the abnormality of permanently imposing a strange man on Saudi women. The success of this campaign will be challenged by three institutions. These institutions will most likely constitute pressure lines to prevent women from obtaining the human and civil right of driving their own cars.

First: Fee-charging government bodies

– One and a half million drivers’ visas worth two and a half billion SAR (six hundred sixty-six million USD).

– The General Passports Department earns one and a half billion SAR (four hundred million USD) from residency fees.

– Health insurance fees bring in a minimum of seven hundred million SAR (a hundred eighty-six million USD).

Thus, the Interior Ministry will lose approximately five billion SAR (a billion and three hundred thirty-three million USD) if women driving were to be legalized. These enormous returns will start to dwindle and fall until ultimately they become nothing. It’s no wonder that the Interior Ministry is not overly enthusiastic about the idea of lifting the ban and are firm and strong against women who attempt to exercise their right to drive.

Second: Taxi companies

The vast majority of this companies are owned by elites. 85% of their business depends on women seeking transportation in the bigger cities. These businesses generate unbelievably huge sums that reach to five million SAR (a million and three hundred thousand USD) a month. Naturally, if women were allowed to drive, this enormous financial resource will gradually dry up. Hence those millions a month will be no more. Again, it’s no surprise that these elites would not be too excited or happy to see the ban lifted. This is what happen in Qatar when they lifted the ban on Qatari women driving. The taxi companies’ profits fell to a quarter of what they were. It is especially worrying for the Saudi companies now that taxi charges rose a 100% in the cities after fees on foreign recruitment rose.

Third: Recruitment agencies and airlines

When we talk about one and a half million visas then we are also saying one and a half million flights worth up to three billion SAR (eight hundred million USD), as well as one and a half million recruitment contracts valued at eight billion SAR (two billion USD) minimum. The price of recruiting one driver from abroad is about eight thousand SAR (two thousand USD) which adds up to thirteen billion SAR (three and a half billion USD). That is a number that would be difficult to let go. Experts are forecasting that under the current ban the number of drivers is expected to double to three million foreign drivers. Thus, these profits will also increase a 100%.

All the billions mentioned above are paid by Saudi families and specifically Saudi women, not once but many times over. What’s more, financial penalties up to twice the original cost are imposed if there is any delay in payment. For example, the driver’s residency renewal fees double if they are not paid on time.

Hence, we have so many winners at the expense of Saudi women. Women, who are weak, tender, helpless citizens in need of protection and care, represent 60% of humanity’s workforce, and yet women have to bear all these consequences. Since the ban on women driving is implemented with threats of firmness and strength against all who defy it, it would only be fair to revise all these driver recruitment fees and fines. These fees add up to about six billion SAR (one and a half billion USD) paid by Saudi families, in particular, Saudi women because drivers are imposed on them by necessity.


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Municipal Elections 2015

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Thursday was the last day for candidacy registration in Saudi Arabia. Don’t get too excited! The elections are only for municipal council seats. But it’s still a start. This is the third round of municipal elections in history and

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

the first to allow women to vote and run. The inclusion of women is not the only progress. This round, the municipal election winners will be a bit more than the nominal seats they were in the past and will have a little more say in the budget and performance of the municipalities. For example, in the past the head of the municipality is also a voting member of the council. It doesn’t matter which way he votes or even if he abstains because the ultimate decision is made by his office once the issue leaves the council. However, this time around, the heads of municipalities are no longer council members and only a non-voting coordinator from the head’s office is allowed to attend. Other changes include lowering the age requirement to eighteen and raising the educational requirement of candidates from literate to a high school diploma. Also the number of elected versus appointed council members has changed. Instead of half elected and half appointed, now it will be two-thirds elected and one-third appointed.

Many have expressed that participation in these elections is futile. They point out that previously elected officials have not had any real impact. Others claim that many of those that were elected, were voted in for reasons other than merit such as tribal and religious affiliations.

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

This has also been evident in the current election with Shiekh Al-Mutlaq, member of the Saudi Highest Islamic Council, telling people that they should vote for their relatives regardless of merit unless those relatives release them from the obligation. However, others are more farsighted including the Municipal Affairs elections spokesperson, Mr. Jadeeh Al Qahtani, who told Al-Riyadh newspaper that the experience gained from the elections will enable the country to conduct any type of elections. And he’s right. After this round, the country will have 35 thousand Saudi men and women across the country who are trained to conduct elections. A million and twenty thousand men are already registered voters from the previous two elections. In this third round, there were over half a million new registrations. Overall, there are 1,750,149 registered voters, with women making up 22% of the total. Nominations for the seats ended yesterday with 16% going to women nominees. Some areas have released their numbers:

Area Women Men Total
Riyadh 236 1051 1287
Eastern Region 65 451 516
Qaseem 78 533 611
Madina 129 528 657
Total 508 2563 3071

municipal elections nominees

The names of those whose nominations are approved and finalized will not be released until November 29th. Afterwards the candidates have to be careful about their campaigns. According to the bylaws, their campaign spokesperson has to be approved by the Ministry. The candidates have to also be careful that their campaign program does not contain anything “seditious.” In 2005, Salman Al Sulayman candidacy was disqualified because his campaign program included his support for lifting the ban on women driving. Both men and women candidates are not even allowed to include their personal photo in their campaign programs.

voting and driving cartoon

Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

The small number of women voters and nominees is partly due to difficulties in registering including the fact that they will be arrested if they drive their own cars. Some of these difficulties were eloquently explained in an article by Maha Akeel. Other difficulties include the prohibition on civil societies and political assembly. Civil societies are illegal and Saudis who create them face legal consequences. For example, both Waleed Abu Alkhair and Dr. Mohammed Al Qahtani are currently serving long prison sentences for starting nongovernmental organizations that promote and advocate human rights. Women participation in the municipal elections had their own government independent advocates; Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi and Fowziya Al Hani started the Baladi Initiative to advocate for women participation in the municipal elections in 2010. A year later, King Abdullah decreed that women will take part in elections. The Baladi Initiative since then has worked on raising awareness about the importance of women participation through lectures, workshops, and media appearances. ْ

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Unfortunately once the elections were coming up, these efforts were abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The Baladi Initiative had started workshops for women who planned to run and for potential women campaign managers. The workshops were free, open to all and planned for all the major cities. As soon as the first one began in Riyadh, the Ministry issued a statement that anything pertaining to the elections has to be either run or licensed by the government. And since the Baladi Initiative is non-governmental then all of their lectures and activities became now illegal. Fortunately this did not discourage these bold women. Since they could not do anything on the ground, they took their movement online. They do interviews on TV to encourage participation and used social media to get the word out.

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Many influential women also had their photos at registration taken and posted to encourage other women to do the same. Some of these leading women’s registration photos are included in this post. If you click on a photo, it will take you to either their Twitter profile or an online bio.

There weren’t that many objections to women participation. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrack issued a fatwa that women’s participation is prohibited. However this is the same sheikh who issued an earlier fatwa claiming that Muslims not adhering to and believing in gender segregation are apostates who should be killed. So far, no one has been executed. He also called soccer the “mother of all sins” and a “Jewish conspiracy against Muslim.” Yet soccer remains the country’s national and by far most popular sport. Others from the religious establishment took a more politically savvy approach. Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Fowzan encourages good Muslim women to run for seats in case a female quota is implemented. This is so “deviant” and “westernized” women do not get any seats. However, if there is no quota then Sheikh Al Fowzan states all devout Muslim men and women should vote for men. Thus no woman gets a council seat. Three videos came out and were widely shared on social media and Whatsapp calling on all “morally vigilant” men to register for the elections to ensure that no women are voted into the councils. The most telling part about these videos is how men and women are represented graphically. The men are portrayed singularly and hold their heads high looking straight ahead while the women are covered, in groups, in profile and with their heads bowed down.

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

So far there has been little indication that people are acting upon the religious establishment’s advice. There were a few minor reports of vandalism at locations for women registrations but nothing serious.

Considering that this is the first time for women to take part and how new Saudis are to the whole democratic process, it’s so far been an auspicious start for the future of political participation in Saudi Arabia.


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Saudi Heroes

Saudi Heroes was inspired by the original Saudi hero, Dr. Gazi Al Qosaibi. These lists highlight Saudis who take stances or work hard in the unselfish pursuit of the betterment of the Saudi people. In this sentence, you’ll find links to the first Saudi heroes post, the second, and the third.

Dr. Tawfig Al Rabiah


Dr. Al Rabiah, Minister of Commerce and Industry, is famously known as “the minister of the people.” He earned this title by mainly abolishing the usual ceremony that surrounds Saudi ministerial positions. He rarely wears the black and gold cloak that sheikhs traditionally wear as a status symbol. He enters the ministry through the front door instead of using a secret back entrance. He even makes a point of taking the stairs so that both ministry employees and the general public can have access to him longer as he enters and leaves his office. When he first took office in 2011, he did not make the usual unlikely-to-ever-materialize-ten-point-five-years plan announcements. We began to feel his presence through the public closures of restaurants for compromised sanitation and violated food regulations. Then he streamlined consumer complaints and facilitated the public’s follow-up of complaints. He removed the glass windows between the ministry’s bureaucrats and the people they are serving. Overall he’s a man who does his job well which is, unfortunately, unusual in the Saudi public service sector.

Waleed Abulkhair


Abulkhair is an independent human rights activist. Many know him as Raif Badawi’s lawyer. He’s also the lawyer who fell in love with one of the strongest Saudi women I know, Samar Badawi. He proposed to her towards the end of the seven months she spent in prison for not obeying her abusive father. He’s a lawyer who’s the first and in many cases the only to defend those who have the government as their plaintiff. He founded an independent human rights organization called the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights. Unfortunately, since Raif’s arrest, Abulkhair has fared worse. He is the first in Saudi history to be tried and sentenced under the new terrorism law and is currently serving a fifteen years sentence. His charges include undermining the regime, inflaming public opinion, insulting the judiciary, harming public order, founding an unlicensed organization, and violating the anti-cybercrime law.

Dr. Latifah Alshaalan

Al-Shaalan is one of the first thirty women to be appointed to the Shura Council (national consultative assembly). Appointments to the Shura are lucrative and renewable. Understandably this leads many on this board to be diplomatic about their views. That is not the case with Al-Shaalan. She warms my heart with how unlike the majority she will call a spade a spade. Despite being reprimanded for attempting to discuss the women driving ban, she did not shirk from attempting it again. She was also outspoken against a recommendation to raise the childbirth rate to bulk up military recruitments. Another issue she dared to bring up is the revision of the Interior Ministry’s terrorist rehabilitation program. She commended the official number of only 12% returning to terrorism after their release. However, she stated that it should be improved. Above is a tweet she wrote last Women’s Day. It translates to “The road is long and treacherous for Saudi women, but women will continue to work on their rights, change perceptions and move the still waters rather than beat themselves up and cry.”

Dr. Ibrahim Al Modamaigh


Dr. Almodamaigh is a fatherly figure. Even interrogators cannot help but respect his calm and knowledgeable demeanor. This patience and wisdom also come across on Twitter. When most would have been frustrated, Dr. Almodamaigh respectfully responds to even trolls. He has taken advantage of that platform to educate Saudis about their rights. Some have told me that they cannot form a final opinion on local political topics until they’ve seen Almodamaigh’s position on the issue.

Dr. Almodamaigh is a Harvard doctorate graduate. He did not attend his graduation in protest over Harvard’s position on Israel’s 1982 attack on Lebanon. He has a history of taking similar stands. He is one of the first signatories of the 1990 Civil Rights petition demanding the monarchy allow a parliament elected by the people. He was appointed to the Human Rights Commission but soon resigned due to its glaring lack of government independence. Currently, he has his law firm. He leads the defense of human rights activists charged with establishing government independent human rights groups such as the members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). He also defended those prosecuted for criticizing a government body such as the three lawyers who were tried for tweeting about the Ministry of Justice’s incompetence and for retweeting a cartoon on the same matter.

Aziza Al Yousef

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AlYousef is one of the most generous people in Saudi Arabia. She is generous with her time, money and hospitality. She has hosted lectures on everything from the Saudi economy’s current situation and future prospects to the life of literary figure Abid Khazandar. She has taken part in all the women driving campaigns since 2011 not only by driving and getting caught but also by supporting other women who do. Her catering business always prioritized employing Saudi women years before it was a national agenda. She is bravely outspoken on fighting terrorism through Arab nationalism. She is the only Saudi woman to attend eight sessions of the ACPRA trials. If I were to sum her up in one sentence, I would say she is one of those rare human beings who lead by example rather than talk. When Jamjoom on CNN asked her why she took part in driving movements, she replied that we are sick and tired of waiting to be given our rights, it’s about time we take them.

Essam Al-Zamel


Al-Zamel is known as a Saudi Twitter “big fish.” With thousands of influential followers in the political and business sectors, his tweets have weight. He is also a fellow blogger. His day job is entrepreneurship with a focus on online startups. However, he’s on this list for his undying championing of taxing “white land.” Only 30% of Saudis own their homes. Everyone else rents. Meanwhile, the rich have a tendency to hoard large undeveloped plots of urban land (white land) as riskless investments. These amassed undeveloped plots lead to land shortages, which in turn drive property prices up. To discourage this practice, Al-Zamel advocated that these plots be taxed. Since 2011, Al-Zamel has been campaigning and raising awareness by taking part in a movie on the topic and through his social media accounts. He has been unrelenting and consistent in a culture with a limited history of political advocacy. Usually, in Saudi Arabia, a person who takes up a cause gives up within a year. Many in Saudi don’t realize that governmental changes in most corners of the world require years of campaigning. Even after the Saudi government announced that it will impose a white land tax, Al-Zamel did not just celebrate and move on. He has since written tirelessly about the implications of how this tax is implemented. He is currently working on educating people about the importance of it being high enough to impact the real estate market and that it be imposed indiscriminately on all.

Dr. Tawfiq al-Saif


Al-Saif is a researcher and writer with a doctorate in political science. He’s authored books in Arabic and English. He is a Saudi hero because much of what he’s said and done for the past few decades is to alleviate sectarianism in Saudi. Al-Saif is a minority Shiite in a country that is considered the center of Sunni Islam. This is a country where, without fear of reproach, government paid sheikhs can issue statements titled “Shia sect an evil among the sects of the Islamic nation, and the greatest enemy and deceivers of the Sunni people.” He spent his teens and early twenties in Iran, Syria and Britain as part of an opposition movement for Shia rights in Saudi. However, when Saddam Hussein came calling with offers of funds, a radio station and even a plane, Al-Saif’s movement turned him down. They responded that despite their differences with how Saudi is governed, they are patriots first. After the Gulf War, Al-Saif’s movement made peace with the government and returned home without fear of prosecution. Since then, Al-Saif has patiently and consistently raised awareness from within about the plight of the Shia minorities while emphasizing the importance of human rights for all. He wrote and signed major petitions that called for national reforms not specific to Shiites. He even had the poise and forbearance to sit through a debate with a mutawa on whether or not Shias should enjoy the same rights as Sunnis. But my personal favorite moment in his interviews is when he is accused of being sectarian himself. With his decades of anti-sectarian stances, he could have vehemently denied it. Instead, he responds that like everyone else he struggles to rid himself of these intolerances.

Aqal Al-Bahili


Al-Bahili is a writer and activist whose history goes back decades. His wife, Nora Al-Ghanim writes about him in a book on the 1990 women driving protest:

“After hardly a year of working as an elementary school teacher, my family moved to Riyadh. There, I was married off to a former political prisoner, Aqil Al Bahili. I had always wanted to marry a man who appreciated women and respected their rights, and fortunately my wish came true as my husband was a staunch advocate of women’s rights. None of my family members, nor my relatives had any history of, or connections to social and political work, with the exception of my husband. He was imprisoned for political reasons during King Faisal’s era. He was in prison for five years before he was released. Soon after his release we were married…I will never forget my husband’s role throughout the turmoil and how he stood by me. I would never even have taken part if it were not for my knowledge that he would be there for me.”

With the recent clamp down on any form of criticism or activism, Al-Bahili is one of the few who still dares to speak up. His tweets, his interviews and his call-ins on shows are downloaded and shared widely on Whatsapp and other more private forums. He has an uncanny ability to assess the public mood. One of his more bold and comprehensive interviews is an hour-long interview he did six months ago. In it, he makes a statement many within the country would only whisper in private; he says the Saudi people want a mechanism through which they could monitor the government and hold it accountable. He also spoke boldly about the people’s aspirations for a constitution and an elected parliament. At the end of the program, people were allowed to tweet in their questions. One person asked how he could still walk free after publicly saying that we can’t expect the rich to pay taxes on their undeveloped urban land plots when they don’t even pay their electricity bills. Al-Bahili’s response was to simply laugh. Fearless.

Adel Faqih


Faqih is another minister worthy of hero status. Faqih is a women rights advocate who has been able to implement and expand the King Abdullah decree of allowing women to work in lingerie shops. Most people think that the biggest obstacle to women working in malls is religious fundamentalism. However, upon implementation, it became obvious that the perception of fundamentalism among Saudi society is exaggerated. In the span between the 2011 decree and 2013, the official number of Saudi women in the private sector grew from 42.4 thousand to 454.3 thousand. Saudi women and society at large proved not too conservative for these jobs. These numbers indicate that the main obstacle was and remains lack of opportunity. Meanwhile, those opposing Faqih are fringe fundamentalists and mostly business owners. Replacing cheap foreign labor with untrained more expensive Saudi women is not a transition that employers welcome. Most foreign labor comes from poverty stricken countries. These workers tend to be more forgiving than Saudis about work hours, health insurance and salary. So no wonder these business owners would not be too keen on the change.

Sami Al-Hussayen


Al-Hussayen was a computer science Ph.D candidate at the University of Idaho when 9/11 happened. He was later caught up in the Patriot Act witch-hunt and was eventually deported. This scenario could have gotten much worse in many ways. The false accusations and the interruption of his hard earned studies could have led him astray. Instead, he came home and currently teaches computer science at a technical college in Riyadh. Al-Hussayen is a Saudi hero because rather than wallowing in bitterness he co-founded a non-profit educational platform, Rwaq. He created the platform with another Saudi hero, Fouad Al-Farhan. On this platform, they cut through all the financial and bureaucratic obstacles of further education. They also enable people from all over the Arab world to generously share their expertise. All this at no cost to no one but themselves.

Hissa Hilal


Hilal is a poetess with a long history of publishing under the pseudonym, Remia. Her talent was resilient enough to withstand the patriarch Bedouin society she grew up in. In her teens, her notebooks were taken away and set on fire. This did not deter her. She made use of any mode of communication available to her at the time including landlines and fax to send her poetry to magazines and newspapers. Eventually, her talent shined through and got her own regular two-page spread in a weekly Kuwaiti magazine. She moved on from there to be the first Saudi woman editor of the poetry and prose page in Al Hayat newspaper. Although, all of this merits her to be a Saudi hero, she’s on this list for another accomplishment. In 2010, she participated in the fourth season of a popular competition called The Million’s Poet. She took third place based on the viewer’s votes. However, if the show were based solely on the judges votes, she would have won. Regardless of her placement, she used this platform to address misogyny and extremism. While her fellow contestants wrote poems about their love conquests, Hilal bravely wrote hers about the psychological torture of polygamy and the evilness of fatwas. She was inevitably attacked and slandered in the media. In response, she used the last poem of the program to state that her intellectual freedom is like a bird that no one can catch.


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