This is a quite expressive cartoon by a longstanding cartoonist, Al Rabea, from yesterday’s edition of Al Riyadh newspaper. It depicts a recurring and widespread situation in Saudi Arabia. In it a woman is backed against the wall in a helpless and hopeless fetal position and a man is pointing his camera equipped cell phone at her. The man has his understanding and polite face mask pulled off to reveal the meanness and devil ears beneath. Around the couple are scattered Bluetooths. The story behind this drawing is that many men take advantage of the oppressive nature of this society by befriending and pursuing vulnerable Saudi women until they let down their guard and send photos of themselves to these men. These men then use the photos to blackmail the women, mostly for sex but also for money and sometimes just for the fun of it.
In many cases the photos are usually quite innocent and if seen anywhere else in the world, it would not mean much. But here the possession of a photo of a Saudi woman with only her regular clothes on and without an abaya or hijab is scandalous and could cause a lot of trouble for the woman. Husbands divorce their wives solely on that basis. Even worse, a woman’s children could be taken away because she would be considered an unfit mother and a bad influence on her daughters.
Two extremely high profile cases that happened a decade ago, just when digital photography started going mainstream here caused the government to issue laws against men who use these photos. The first case was of an average single Saudi girl who during a trip to Makkah visited a young man’s apartment after a phone relationship. The guy took photos, some of which were compromising and explicit. Later in the relationship he got mad at the girl for one reason or another and posted the photos with a map to her family’s home in Riyadh and her full name. The aftermath was tragic. The girl was taken to a remote part of the desert and burned to death by her own brothers. The other case was that a young man who belongs to a high status family got mad at his teenage girlfriend and asked his slave* to rape her while he filmed it on his cell phone. This particular Bluetooth really got around and only Saudis living under rocks haven’t seen it. The girl was still in her school uniform and begging the guy to call the slave off. These two cases got so much attention that they pushed the government to act. Now a man who is caught blackmailing or passing out photos of a Saudi woman can be prosecuted and punished. On the other hand, this will also need the woman or at least her family to come forward and press charges so it doesn’t work that well if the woman comes from an extremely conservative family. Note that these cases are handled with the utmost sensitivity on the part of the government and the name of the woman is kept secret throughout the process. But if the girl cannot confide in her family because they might literally kill her or at least inflict serious physical and emotional harm, how is she supposed to be able to confide in the authorities? I have heard of cases where more mature women skipped family support and went directly to the authorities via the vice patrol (muttawas). Surprisingly, the muttawas are very forgiving. As long as at the end of the day they have someone to prosecute, they will willingly overlook the woman’s original discrepancy that got her into trouble in the first place.
The comments that this cartoon got on the newspaper’s website were about 140 in less than 24 hours. I skimmed through them and a substantial number of them blame the women. They write that if women observed the correct hijab and cover then they would not have gotten into trouble. They go as far as to write that women are completely to blame because they seduce naïve and innocent men into doing these things. Some simply thanked the cartoonist for airing the topic. Many used terms like wolves to refer to men and condemned them. A few men wrote about how the sympathize with women and how sad and lonely life can get for women here.* I use the term slave for lack of a better word. These workers are not legally bound to their employers but voluntarily enslave themselves so in every other sense they are slaves.