Category Archives: Culture

No way out

An 18 year old Saudi girl on May 24th shot herself with her 50ish husband’s rifle only a week after the nuptials. She left a note asking her family to forgive her and to pray for her. She also requested that her mother be the one to prepare her body for burial. According to the family, she had agreed to the marriage but had shown signs of depression the weeks leading up to the wedding and the first few days after marriage.

I thought about not writing about her but then I remembered what one social worker told AlRiyadh Newspaper that she knows of 3,000 child-bride marriages to much older men just in the past year. If an 18 year old would rather die, can you imagine how those 11 and 13 year olds feel?

I can pretty much guess the tactics that the family used to get acquiescence. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. One girl I know when she refused a suitor that her family liked, they ground her while her mother nagged her about it and her teen brother refused to eat or drink until she agreed to marry the suitor. This was a girl fresh out of high school.  Although the groom was in his twenties, the girl was obviously not ready. While they were dressing her for the wedding, she told everyone that she will be single within a week. Surely enough a week later she came home and locked herself in her room until her husband divorced her. Unfortunately she had gotten pregnant and their child was raised by parents that should never have been.

Depression and suicide are a sad reality no matter where you live and whatever your background. However they should not be caused by being deprived of choice. Pressuring young women to get married might be a lesser evil than child marriages but it is an evil nevertheless.

Sources:

Alriyadh newspaper

Okaz Newspaper

Qathaya Al Mujtima Newspaper

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Filed under Child marriages, Culture, Gender Apartheid

Much ado about women

Sheikh Al Najaimi who announced his support for the Al Barak fatwa that anyone who calls for gender desegregation should be killed was caught last month attending a women’s day conference in Kuwait. The conference’s attendees were mostly women and there was no segregation at all. He sat for hours with women and even had a meal with them. When he got back to Saudi Arabia, he told everyone that the majority of women were menopausal and as such it is Islamically allowed for him to socialize with them. Of course, this is not true. In the Quran, the verse is very clear that it is the woman’s decision whether or not to announce that she is post-menopausal and just being menopausal is not enough, she has to have no interest in men too. However, Al Najaimi took it upon himself to make this milestone decision on behalf of all the women attending the conference. Moreover he proclaimed that those who weren’t post menopause confessed to him that they were committing a sin by not covering!

A woman who shiekh Al Najaimi insisted is post menapausal even when she denied it. He said to her face "you are post menopausal whether you admit it or not!".

And then the Deputy Minister of Girl’s Education Ms. Nora Al Faiz, made it a point to appear in photos taken at official meetings in full face cover to even more discredit the photo of her face that was highly publicized when she was first appointed. I’ve met a few teachers since then and they keep telling me that they or other colleagues are uncomfortable with such a liberal woman!

At the same time, King Abdullah had a photograph of him and Princess Mozah, the ruler of Qatar’s wife, on the first page of most major newspapers in Saudi. And then another photo of the king and Prince Sultan with a group of Saudi women, many with their faces uncovered surfaced everywhere. And this one had the names of those women published alongside it as if to show that tribal Saudi women from old families have no issue with having their pictures in newspapers.

It is rumored here and here that recently a Saudi woman declared on a forum that she will stand in the middle of a major highway in Riyadh and burn her face cover and hijab, she was apprehended within a few hours of posting. She goes by the name of Wedad Khalid and lives in a posh area of Riyadh. On her post (I haven’t seen it personally) it is reported that she was going to do it on June 12th 2010 and she invited people to video tape it. She also stated that a couple of years in prison are worth standing up to the hypocrisy of Saudi society. It was reported that within a couple of hours she was reported, tracked down and arrested.

It’s a crazy time to be a Saudi woman. You’re pulled in every direction and a simple and personal decision like covering or uncovering your face decides your spirituality and political stance  and affects everything from family to career.

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Filed under Culture, Fatwas, Gender Apartheid

The man of the hour

Great controversy is brewing in Saudi Arabia and it all starts and ends with Sheikh Ahmed Al Ghamdi. Al Ghamdi is a 47 year old PhD holder in administration and strategical planning and also has spent 15 years studying Islam.

The whole issue began when Okaz Newspaper published a lengthy article last December written by Sheikh al Ghamdi in which he proclaimed that there is no such thing as gender segregation in Islam. He stated that what we are at today is based on extremism and cultural considerations. Moreover he points out that the very thing that we have been prohibiting is practiced in most Saudi households with the presence of maids. Anyhow this is not the first time that a Saudi sheikh has written about the illogicality of gender segregation. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Baz wrote about it and so did the judge Eissa al Ghaith. Although both got an earful, their articles were eventually forgotten. The difference with Sheikh al Ghamdi is that he is head of the Makkah PVPV commission. And as everybody knows, maintaining gender segregation is one of the highest callings of the PVPV. So for Sheikh al Ghamdi to come out and say that this form of segregation is Islamically baseless, it becomes an issue of conflict of interests. And then he tops his gender segregation article with another article on not banning shops from business during prayer time. Going around shopping areas to insure that they close during prayer is another main component of a PVPV member’s job description. As one journalist points out, Shiekh al Ghamdi may be free to write what he thinks but as an employee of the PVPV, he shouldn’t be publishing things that go against their policies and practices.

For the PVPV and the whole ultra conservative majority, to have one of their own, someone who they had given a high position in their hierarchy go against their beliefs is a slap in the face. Attacks on Shiekh al Ghamdi’s character, credentials and articles were on every one of their TV channels and papers. Some claimed that he was paid to write what he wrote. And then a group of influential muttawas got together and decided to invite Sheikh al Ghamdi to a televised debate. He came onto to the show and it struck me as more of a trap. Insults were thrown at him right and left. The opposing debaters instead of discussing al Ghamdi’s points kept calling him a mere accountant who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Another claimed that al Ghamdi was blasphemous towards the Prophet (PBUH). The call-ins were a confirmation of my belief that the whole show was a set up. Again a bunch of sheikhs called in and insulted al Ghamdi and then HRH prince Khalid bin Talal called demanding that al Ghamdi be fired from his PVPV post and called him an embarrassment to Saudi Arabia. This lead to a flurry of news organizations reporting that a PVPV sheikh was fired for not believing in gender segregation. The next day it was learned that Al Ghamdi was still at his PVPV post.

The following week sheikh al Ghamdi was again invited to the show to debate the issue. The second show was an improvement on the first. The debaters were given three uninterrupted minutes to state their case and everyone tried to avoid personal insults. The call-ins too were more balanced with some calling in in support of al Ghamdi. On both shows I was impressed by how confident and articulate al Ghamdi was. In comparison, the other two shiekhs seemed baffled and unprepared.

However the outcries against him haven’t subsided and his job at the PVPV is still up in the air. The afternoon of April 25th, a statement was released to the newspapers that a routine shuffle has resulted in the demotion of sheikh al Ghamdi, and then a couple of hours later all newspapers were requested not to publish the statement. And up to the writing of this post no news of whether or not Sheikh al Ghamdi will be allowed to keep his job has come out.

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Filed under Culture, Fatwas, Gender Apartheid, Women driving

Why do we stay the way we are?

How we have come to be the society we are today is one thing and why change is slow in coming is another. Outsiders looking in think to themselves why do Saudi women put up with all this oppression. The guardianship system, the ban on driving and all our other societal peculiarities draw looks of pity, shock and for some a fixation. Why don’t we all just go out into the streets without abayas? Why don’t we just get behind a wheel and drive? Why don’t we run away? The short answer is we don’t want to. But that isn’t helpful. To bring it closer to non-Muslims and especially Christians, I would ask them to look into their own backyard at the polygamous offshoots of the Latter Day Saints, whether it’s a compound or a small town on the borders of Utah. Why don’t the women there run away, stand up for their rights or at the very least speak up? The vast majority of them believe in their lifestyle even though the country’s legal system does not support it and would back a woman who wants to get away. It isn’t much of a stretch from those dresses and bonnets to abayas, especially when considering that Saudi women don’t do much manual work and only wear the abaya in the presence of unrelated men.  I personally think that being a “sister wife” in a plural marriage is a lot worse than how polygamy is practiced in Saudi because here wives are separate and no pretensions of love or saintliness are expected.

Mormon women in the USA do not stand up to their oppressors because they belong. They are part of a community that loves and cherishes them. If they were to leave they would have to face the harsh responsibilities and realities of life alone and detached. It is not cowardice. It’s about finding your place in the world and contributing by fixing it from within.

So before you judge us, relate to us. This is what we are born into and we would feel lost without our community’s approval and backing. And just like every individual in this world, Saudi women are just trying to find their way.

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Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid, Informative

The Saudi sixth Pillar of Islam

In Islam there are five pillars that are the foundation of what it is to be Muslim; the belief that there is only one God and that Mohammed was one of his prophets, praying five times a day, the annual giving of 2.5% of monetary wealth to the poor, fasting the month of Ramadan and performing Hajj at least once in a lifetime for those who can afford it.

So if you’re a decent person who does these five things, no more and no less that would make you a good Muslim. That was the case for 1400 years and then Saudis came along and unofficially added a sixth pillar; the oppression of women. It has gotten so bad that in all seriousness people are asking on Islamic forums if niqab is an Islamic pillar! Ever since the early 1980s, Saudi sheikhs have been preoccupied with how to keep a rein on the womenfolk. The two major sheikhs of the 80s are Bin Othaimeen and Bin Baz and since they passed away, it seems that their standing legacy are their oppressive fatwas on women such as why it is Islamically prohibited for women to drive cars, how a woman should wear her abaya, that pants are prohibited for women, and my favorite that marriage should take precedence over education. In the nineties the “oppress all women” cause lost some of it wind to the “kill all infidels” cause.

In the last decade however the government put its foot down and stifled the violent jihad calls against the rest of the world and so our sheikhs are back to hassling women. They even use jihad vocabulary in their anti-women cause like “jihad against the westernization movement”. Since the unofficial addition of this sixth pillar, there is no surprise that sheikh Al Bararak sees fit that unrelated men and women mingling together should be murdered in the name of Islam. What’s more worrying is what the Saudi novelist Samar al Moqren pointed out, that 26 other major sheikhs felt that it was their duty to support Al Barack’s fatwa by signing a petition while not a single sheikh publicly went against it. This tells us that things might seem to be going in the right direction superficially but underlying all this recent progress are large groups of fundamentalists waiting for the chance to pull us back into the religiously fueled dark ages. The only thing between us and them is the current political environment.

Last week’s outcry about sheikh Yousef al Ahmad’s suggestion that the Makkah mosque be demolished and rebuilt in such a way that ensures complete segregation is only the tip of the iceberg. If you saw the whole show, it was a group of fundamentalists sitting in a tent and plotting against women. The whole show was on how terrible it is that there are women and men working together in hospitals. Sheikh Yousef al Ahmad claimed that he had had a research project that required him to survey a hospital and that in his frequent visits he saw outrageous things happening between unrelated men and women. He said that it is common knowledge that female secretaries are only hired for “play”. The sheikh gave as an example of the evils of not segregating the sexes the current state in the USA, with emphasis on the Clinton/Lewinsky affair! He also claimed that in Japan there are many hospitals that are for women only, so that both staff and patients are all women. He was outraged that those Japanese “rock worshippers” are more protective of their women than us honorable Saudi Muslims. After he finished talking, another fundamentalist claimed that he visited a place in the United States where Christians finally came to their senses and were practicing complete gender segregation.

Like I said before this sheikh’s suggestion is not an isolated incident but is actually representative of a large sector of Saudi thinkers, policy makers and average people who are having a lot of trouble shaking off the 1980s repressive trends. From the twittering of approval for a prominent Saudi woman who met a European diplomatic envoy in complete head to toe covering to the calls for punishing a Saudi woman who had her photo taken in front of the PVPV booth at the Riyadh book fair with her face only partially covered.

Those who go against these fundamentalists are quickly rejected. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz who we would have heard a lot more from but has instead been marginalized due to his push away from extremism. Only under King Abdullah has he been able to get the word out that Islam has nothing to do with the oppression of women. Shiekh Salman al Ouda is another example of a sheikh who has also been marginalized for not sticking to the anti women Saudi path.

The introduction of this sixth pillar is based on the principle of prevention of sin. Ask a fundamentalist why can’t women drive? Or why so much emphasis on gender segregation? And their reply bubbles down to prevention of sin. In the name of preventing sin, a woman has only three places she belongs in, her parent’s house, her husband’s and her grave. Other than that she might be too much of a temptation for good Muslims to maintain their religion.

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Filed under Culture, Fatwas, Gender Apartheid

Gender Apartheid

Gender Apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe there is any other place in the world where gender decides everything a person does on a daily basis and to the minutest details. To the outside world this manifests in the ban on women driving and the compulsory abaya. However it goes much deeper than that in that gender discrimination is institutionalized in every sector of the Saudi government. The majority of government ministries are off limits to women, both as visitors and as employees. Women are assigned a side building that is usually in the back with a separate entrance and it’s usually cramped. Moreover, when a woman needs to get her own papers done, these women sections are only authorized to do the most routine and mechanical administration. As an example let me tell you about a close friend of mine; she happens to be a Saudi who was born in another country and as such carries dual nationality. She went to renew her other passport and the embassy noticed that there was a discrepancy between her Saudi passport date of birth and her birth certificate by a few days. They insisted that this discrepancy had to be corrected before they could issue her a new passport. So naturally she took her Saudi passport and her original birth certificate to the ministry of foreign affairs. Of course she didn’t go through the main door like the men but to a small building to the side, added like an afterthought. That’s bad but it can be tolerated since it’s basically an aesthetic issue. But what was really frustrating for my friend was that the women working inside told her they were powerless to help her. They told her that her husband, brother, or father has to go to the men’s section to get her passport birth date corrected. Of course, she got upset because at the time she was separated from her husband, she does not have a brother and she didn’t want to bother her father with such a mundane errand.

This scenario is extremely common; Najla Barasain here gives an account of how pointless the women’s section is at the ministry of higher education. And I’ve personally visited the women’s section at the ministry of education and they too had no decision-making power. Neither did female heads of departments at the women’s sections of universities. They were there just for appearances sake. Any real decisions had to come through the men’s section.

This translates to the impossibility of Saudi women getting hired, transferred, starting a business and even properly quitting without the total support of a man. When I had to get some paperwork done, I resorted to hiring a stranger and giving him a cell phone and my file. He would go to the offices that I directed him to, call me and then hand the cell phone to the official behind the desk. I couldn’t call the officials at their office numbers because frankly they rarely answered. And so this guy I hired would go from one official to the next at my instructions like a remote controlled robot. All this because as a woman, I am prohibited from entering a government ministry.

There is little likelihood that this will change anytime soon. Shiekh Al Barrak recently issued a fatwa stating that those who call for the mixing of genders even in the workplace should be killed. The Fatwa led the government to censor the shiekh’s website, but that did not stop him. He just moved to another website. Moreover 27 other fundamentalist shiekhs signed a petition in support of Al Barrack’s violent fatwa. Al Barack himself is the last living member of the traditional, misogynist eighties rat pack of sheikhdom. However he has a loyal following within the muttawas of Nejd. His call for the death of gender mixing people has been linked by some to the burning of a literary club tent in Al Jouf. Feelings run high when it comes to women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia. For every Saudi willing to speak up for women’s rights, there is a Saudi willing to attempt murder to shut them up.

To read more about Saudi gender apartheid check a translation of Dr. Fawzia Al Bakr’s article here.

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Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

Abaya regulations

It’s true, abayas are regulated and policed. And I don’t only mean the PVPV trolling the malls shouting at women to cover. For a Saudi woman that’s minor when compared to what we have to go through at schools and colleges. You can gauge the political stance of the administration of an educational facility by its abaya rules.

All schools that are run by the ministry of education, i.e. public schools, make female students and employees wear abayas tent style over their heads. Students in particular have to wear complete face covering that has no opening for the eyes. This is implemented by teachers, usually in pairs, that stand at the inside of the school entrance and not allow a student to go out unless she has the proper abaya and face cover on. This is also done at small women-only colleges and at Al Imam University, except instead of a rotation of gate duty between teachers, they actually employ a few women whose sole job is to police students to make sure that they wear a tent-style abaya with full face covering, wear long skirts and sleeves underneath and confiscate camera cell phones.

Many but not all private schools, colleges and the relatively more liberal King Saud University do not subject their female students to such scrutiny. As long as you wear a abaya and have a scarf on your head, you’re fine. And as long as you’re not actually pointing your cell phone camera and taking pictures, no one cares whether or not you have one. Unfortunately this flexibility is rare since the majority of Saudi women do attend public schools or at least the more conservative private schools.

I have had a lot of experience with this type of policing throughout my education and work career. Although I have not attended public schools as a student, I did work in a few as part of my practical training and also at the beginning of my teaching career. Of course I had to wear the tent style abaya too. But my way to get around it was to wear my regular shoulder abaya underneath and as soon as I was past the guards, I would shed the top abaya like it was on fire. I also had to do my share of gate duty and felt like a hypocrite. However it helped that I did happen across the principal at a restaurant with her face uncovered and wearing a fancy abaya. So many of us are enforcing rules that we don’t believe in.

What is underneath the abaya is also regulated. The first school I taught at the principal had an issue with my sneakers. She deemed them too western and ordered me to wear “regular” shoes such as loafers or high heels! At another school, at the first meeting the principal told me that she would let it go because it was my first day but my elbow long sleeves were against the rules. But nothing breaks the rules like a pair of pants on a Saudi woman. One time I was going for an interview at a university here in Riyadh. As I wasn’t a student and I had no intention of taking off my abaya for the interview, I went wearing pants. I knew the rules but since I was neither an employee nor a student there plus my abaya was the sort that did not have an opening in the front, I thought it would be ok. As soon as the female guard saw the cuffs of my pants under the abaya, she stopped me and told me that I could not enter the university until I bought a skirt from her and gave her my pants for safekeeping. She was serious! And she had a stack of 30 riyal black long skirts in a drawer. I did not want to miss the interview so I compromised (with a lot of back and forth arguing) by wearing one of her skirts on top of my pants with the abaya still on. Call me petty but as soon as I got past her I took the skirt off and stuffed into my purse.

My point is that Saudi women are conditioned from fourth grade and up, even as professionals themselves, to be subjected to this type of moral policing. Imagine what it’s like for women from ultra-conservative families. At home, school and work they are made to wear the abaya in such a way as to maximize the ideology that women are objects to be enjoyed by their guardians and covered from others. No wonder they impose it on themselves and on their daughters; it’s all they’ve known throughout their lives.

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Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

Al Tahlia on Thursdays

Al Tahlia is a street in the middle of Riyadh, lined on both sides with restaurants, coffee shops and a few boutiques and specialty shops. Last Thursday, February 11th, I went out to dinner with my sisters and afterwards, we decided to pass by Al Tahlia because we heard it gets crazy every Thursday. Our Thursdays are like Saturdays for the West. It’s the first day of the weekend. So my sister Fatten and I wanted to check it out especially since I had my camera handy and we weren’t disappointed. Keep in my mind that:

1-     Alcohol is illegal and inaccessible to the majority.

2-     These photos were all taken after midnight.

This one is just to show how crowded it really was. And those lighted poles on the left are palm trees with their trunks decorated with tiny yellow lights

And the police were out too. In full force, they had a bus parked onto one side and you can see police cars and police on foot bringing young men to the bus.

Here you can see men being led to the bus.

But that didn’t stop people (men actually) from making a ruckus, pointlessly hanging out of the windows of their cars and playing their music loud.

When they saw me with my camera they started to call out to me to take their picture. This one guy was especially persistent, that even the driver told me to take his photo! When he got the camera pointed at him he went back down into the car to get a sign on which he had painted his cell phone number. I blacked out his eyes and his number.

All over the street, they wanted to get their picture taken and posed for the camera. At one stop light a car full of kids actually ignored the red light so that they could get into the camera’s field of view. Some would even drive up to our windows to get a picture taken.

And it wasn’t only cars. motorcycles were aplenty. These guys didn’t mind having their photo taken as long as I gave them time to cover their faces with bandannas and scarves.

Restaurants too were packed. These photos were taken at 12:30 am.

The police blocked the crossroads in the middle of al Tahlia street so that the cars would have to disperse left and right.

Some say that the police were right to do so. This is an area in the middle of the city and by behaving this way, these men are causing traffic issues. There is an area just outside Riyadh, Al Mounisiya, next to King Fahad stadium where there is a cluster of sheesha (hookah) shops and restaurants. Also that area is famous for its  isterhas (weekend houses) which are available for nightly rent. So you can’t say that they have no place to go.

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Filed under Culture, Fun

Dirty seven letter words

In Saudi, if you would like to be dismissed and have everything you write or say never taken seriously, all you have to do is to declare yourself a liberal or secularist. That’s it. You’re done. You might as well be screaming in a thunder storm.

However being called by someone else secularist or liberal is not as serious. People here throw these terms around like insults directed at others they disagree with. Liberal and secular are dirty seven letter words in Saudi Arabia. Youtube abounds with Arabic videos of extremist sheikhs stating that Muslims who adopt liberalism and secularism are infidels, donkeys, dogs, pigs…etc. My favourite is one in which a documentary showing beetles eating cattle dung is dubbed over and written commentary is added simply to say that liberals are like these beetles in infesting society with crappy morals.

There is no clear definition of liberalism and secularism in Saudi. However in a dichotomy they seem to be the opposite of being a God-fearing decent person. For example, Saudis who believe that sciences and math should be the focus of the school day and not Islamic studies get categorized as secular. If they think that the PVPV should be merged with the police then they most definitely have secularist tendencies. Any type of idea related to keeping up with the rest of the world is deemed secularism.  Insinuating that the ban on women driving goes against basic human rights, will brand them liberal. Liberalism in particular, bubbles down to nonconformity to the version of Islam that had its rules set in stone in the 1980s by Shiekh bin Othaimeen. To many Saudis, whose only view of the outside world is Hollywood’s version on their TV screen, these terms equal society’s decadence and widespread uncontrollable immorality. The very word liberal in Arabic is actually a loanword from English. So you can just imagine how it puts Islamic fundamentalists off. One time I was having tea with a distant older cousin and she told me that she had never been to Al Faisaliah and Kingdom Tower (major hotels and shopping malls in Riyadh) because she was told that ‘liberals’ go there. She was under the impression that this meant it would be like being in Europe and that unrelated men and women would sit with each other and chat openly. That they would dress in a Saudi version of sleazy. She said she did not want that influence on her daughters. She also said that sometimes she would ask to be driven by just to see the fancy cars and women with their faces uncovered. This is her impression of what liberals do and there are many in Saudi like her.

However the concept itself is not foreign in Islamic history. The three basic principles of Liberalism, equal rights, freedom of speech and tolerance are the very essence of what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) taught those who lived in his era. Sadly in modern times it has been buried deep by the same people who prohibit normal interaction between men and women in the name of “prevention of sin” (سد الذرائع ).

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Filed under Culture, Freedom of speech

Happy New Year everyone!

Yesterday evening I heard about an incident a family friend had gone through very recently. She was home alone and she happened to live next door to a mosque. During prayer time some thieves broke into the house so she locked herself into the bathroom and started screaming out the window. She screamed and yelled “ya umah”, which funnily enough means mommy. Anyway the thieves cleaned out the house and no one stopped by to see if the hysterical woman screaming out a window needed help.

Later her enraged husband and brother went to the imam of the mosque and asked him why they didn’t stop prayer and come to her rescue. And the imam replied that she wasn’t clear about what was wrong so he assumed that her husband was beating her up and didn’t want to intervene!

Back in 2004 we had an incident at my house when I thought that a car had run over my son in the front yard. I too screamed and yelled as I ran towards him. Alhamdlil Allah he was fine. And some Saudi man outside heard me and came running and knocked on our door to see if he could do anything. I didn’t word out anything specific either in my hysteria but still a man outside wanted to help even if it might mean interrupting an abusive husband.

I’m not sure why I wrote this as a New Year post but it’s what I’ve been thinking about all day and had to get it out there.

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