Category Archives: 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.


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.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

What The Fatwa?!

I borrowed the phrase in the title from my friend Mona el Tahawy because if anything deserved a WTF then it definitely is the case of a woman in my hometown Al Ras, a little town in Qasseem where everyone is related in some way to everyone else. The woman is married to a Saudi and is now a naturalized Saudi herself. She was accused of making false malicious complaints against government officials working on a case raised against her husband. And she was also accused of going to the courts and government offices without a mahram (male guardian). Apparently the judge has now deemed that women without a mahram going into the court or government offices for their issues  an offence!

She was sentenced a year and a half in prison and 300 lashings. The judge also threatened her with withdrawing her Saudi citizenship and deportation. She has already started her sentence at the women’s facility in Qaseem and has her infant daughter in there with her too. Her side of the story was that she went to government officials to seek justice for her husband and was received with insults and ridicule. So she courageously took it took it upon herself to go to the courts herself and complain. What was she supposed to do?

I don’t remember ever reading that the Prophet PBUH turned women away telling them to come back with their mahrams. Let alone punish them for it! And what if a woman was abused by her mahram and wanted to seek help?! This judge is wrong on so many levels, and that’s only natural without codified laws. She probably rubbed him the wrong way and he decided to take out his annoyance any way he could. He threatened her with taking away her citizenship! I thought those can’t be taken back. What’s next? Are we going to threaten non tribal Saudis or expel specific tribes like Qatar did?

As you can tell by the photo above, they are real simple people. Al Thawab (her husband’s family) aren’t known for their riches and power. The whole story is just plain dodgy. And yes that’s her in the picture. She was born Sudanese.

The photo is linked to the news article that was reported in Okaz newspaper.


I checked the gossip mill and some people think that she was  just unlucky, timing-wise. Because at the same time her case was in the courts another  case regarding a judge was also being reviewed. The judge was accused of making false and malicious claims and the Al Ras court really had it in for him and gave him 10 months prison and 120 lashings. People speculate that when the woman’s case came up, the court wanted to ‘seem’ fair by being harsh on her too! Now the accused judge is appealing and will probably go around in circles until his case is dropped while the poor woman, due to her lack of wasta (nepotistic) influence, will have to take the fall.


Filed under Fatwas, Gender Apartheid

A Saudi woman going places: Deena al Faris

Daughter of a prominent businessman, Deena is not your typical spoiled upper class Saudi woman. She finished her global law MA degree in the UK in 2006.

Currently she is the CEO of her father’s company which mainly deals with the production of caviar.

What really stands out about Deena is her outspokenness and courage. Recently she was nominated for the board of directors at the Eastern Region Chamber of Commerce and as a candidate she did her best to get her viewpoint out through media and by speaking to as many Eastern Region businessmen as she could. I was especially impressed by  the fact that she brushes aside any hint that they should vote or view her as solely a woman candidate. She really believes in what she has to offer and is passionate about it as a businessperson.

Voting in the chambers of commerce, as is everything else here, is completely gender segregated. Women are not only assigned separate areas but also separate days. This Saturday Deena al Faris did something no one has ever done. She went into the men’s area on the day when men were supposed to vote. There she was, surrounded by hundreds of Saudi men. Her intentions were to meet voters and answer questions but she was met as though she was carrying a bomb. Security threatened to call the police and have her physically removed. However the minister himself, H. E. Abdullah Zainal Riza intervened by issuing the fastest new ruling in the history of the ministry that women candidates are allowed into the men’s section during voting. This all happened within a couple of hours. One gutsy Saudi woman’s actions equaled change for all Saudi women.


Filed under Gender Apartheid, Women campaigns

The Ideology of Control

This is from an article I wrote for the November issue of Relativity Online:

Ultra-conservative Saudi families, and they are a majority, have a general dynamic that few Saudis could deny.  Like old-fashioned western family ideologies, the father is the breadwinner, the mother takes care of the home-front, the sons are served and tolerated and the daughters are the bit of fluff that flutters around the house.

But unlike most other cultures, daughters also have to contend with constant supervision of their every move. A job that some brothers feel falls on their shoulders. No matter what age a woman is, many families believe that as long as she is single, she is a liability. This translates into horrific intrusions of privacy and personal freedom. In one extreme case, a family I know has no locks on any of the doors including the bathroom doors, so that to insure the daughters cannot seclude themselves and do anything inappropriate; pre-approval of clothing, whether at home or when leaving the house, is common.

A friend of mine once told me she had to sit for over two hours in an uncomfortable position because she had pajama pants on and was afraid her father, who had come early from work, would see them. And this is not only with teenage girls, but also adult women… even divorced mothers. So what’s a girl to do in this situation? Many go by the Arabic saying that translates into “a woman has only three places in this world: her family’s home, her husband’s home or her grave”. Read more


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

Please let us drive

The academic year is starting and it is so dreadful dragging the driver around. Tell me what should I do when I have a class that’s 90 minutes long and it takes a 30 minute drive to get there; it’s terrible to make the driver wait outside in the heat and I have to rush out asap so no after class discussions. Or do I let him take the car home and pay for double the gas and have to wait for him to get back?!  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m one of the lucky ones that have a driver to myself. I have cousins who sit at home after college because they don’t have a driver and their brothers and fathers are unwilling to drive them around. Others have one driver that they have to share with two or three other sisters. These are adults who have jobs and are responsible as teachers and bankers and yet they have to bear the huge inconvenience of scheduling their trips around each other plus taking into consideration breaks for the driver. And they can’t just hire another driver because it’s a lot more complicated than a few job interviews. They have to pay for a visa (about 2000$) and literally adopt a grown man by ensuring his accommodations, food and everything else.  

In Saudi forums those who oppose lifting the ban on women driving have four arguments that they keep going on and on about:

1-     There are much more important rights that Saudi women should be demanding and prioritizing above lifting the ban on driving. These “other rights” are never spelt out but left ambiguous in every single forum I’ve come across.

2-     That women driving is prohibited in Islam. This has been refuted by the majority of living Saudi sheikhs. However the people who use this argument keep going back to fatwas written by two dead sheikhs who were the inspiration for today’s Taliban lifestyle in Afghanistan.

3-     That Riyadh’s streets are already overcrowded and cannot take the influx that the lift of the ban might cause. To this I say, I have as much right to those streets as any man. Plus this is nonsense because most drivers have to make twice the trips that women would have without the drivers. For example the driver drops off a woman at work and goes home and then goes back to pick her up which means that that single car makes at least four trips a day. Hence using the streets twice as many times a woman would have if she was driving and parking her car at work.

4-     Our men cannot handle seeing a woman behind the wheel. It’s too sexy for them to just look the other way. And women would use it as an excuse to take off their face covers and act like the sinful adulterous beings that wise Saudi men have so far kept tame and locked up. To illustrate here’s a skit that was recently posted on Youtube, it’s in Arabic but there isn’t much talk going on so anyone can understand it. Two guys are hanging out and one guy’s sister calls and tells him that their father needs to go to the hospital and so he takes him. Later when they are hanging out again, one wishes that his sister could drive so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his father getting to the hospital. The other guy says no you don’t want that for your sister. They decide to conduct an experiment by one of them dressing up as a Saudi woman while driving and the other guy pretending to be a husband in need of medical attention in the passenger seat. Chaos ensues.


This ban on women driving makes no sense religiously because Muslim women should not be spending so much time and in such a small space with an unrelated man. It makes no sense economically. 27% of the Saudi population is made up of migrant workers. Sixteen billion dollars in salaries were sent outside Saudi by these workers in 2007 alone. And this sector of our population grows 5% annually. A fairly huge chunk of that 27% is men who come to drive Saudi women around. It makes no sense socially to have these strange men who we know nothing of driving our kids and teenagers around. It’s just not logical.


I propose that all Saudi men be banned from driving for at least three days so that they know what it’s like for us. Even better yet as a sign of solidarity with Saudi women, other countries should ban Saudi men from driving until they give us our right.


Finally a plea to King Abdullah from a little girl who wants her mommy to drive:

Translation: Girl says I want to take a flower and a card with a question asking why can’t women drive in Riyadh to King Abdullah. Man’s voice asks why do you want to do that? She says because I want my mother to be allowed to drive. Man says what if the king says that that is the law and the girl shyly responds that she’ll just say ok.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid, Women driving

A word not unlike nigger

As a student of linguistics I know the immense weight that language carries beyond just a means of communication. And nothing reflects that in Saudi Arabia as does the use of the word hurma (singular) and hareem (plural) to refer to women. Before the ultra-conservative fundamentalist direction that many people of the GCC countries have taken, women were not referred to this way. At the time of the Prophet (PBUH) and in standard and classic Arabic, the words muraa and nissa were used. However in the past century, as more and more things were deemed prohibited concerning women, the word haram (prohibit) was slightly altered to refer to women. Yes, you read right, women are referred to in GCC dialects as “the prohibited”. This has been so ingrained into the language that women themselves use it. A Saudi woman speaking naturally and casually will say “Ana hurma(I am a prohibition)”.   Even I unthinkingly use it.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

“My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”

In August a campaign was launched titled “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”. The aim of the campaign is to stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults. Yes you read it right, a campaign that demands that the status qou remains as is. The campaign is headed by two  princesses and has two rivaling websites. And since it has gotten a lot of attention and some rumors that the two princesses were fighting over whose idea it was, the “Who are we” page has been taken down on one of them. The goal of the campaign is to gather one million signatures from Saudi women who support it. On the bottom of the main page of the weaker website is a button that says click to vote and when you click it, it automatically counts as a vote of support! The other website’s button actually asks for specifics like name and city. The stronger website is here and the weaker one here.

Below I’ve translated Dr. Elham Manea’s piece on the how and why of this campaign: 

I swear I almost smiled, but how could I smile?
Then I said to myself, that people are people, in their wisdom or weakness, here or there, no difference.
So I contemplated rather than smile.

Some Saudi women have decided to express themselves.
They wanted to take a stand against human rights activists calling for Saudi Arabia to give women some (not all) of the rights that are enjoyed by their Arab counterparts in neighboring countries. So they came out with a new campaign titled “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”.  
Do we blame them? All they wanted was to fix a problem they know nothing of, and thus made it worse.  It would be strange to expect anything else from them. You cannot miss what you’ve never had.

Most of them belong to the Saudi aristocrats. Their leader is a princess. Their hands are velvet. They live in palaces and villas. How could we blame them for not knowing the reality of average Saudi women?

These campaigner are only worried about Saudi women. They are protecting women from themselves.They are protecting us from activists, activists who have lived the reality of being a Saudi woman in the East, West, North and South of Saudi Arabia. They know how we suffer, and how we are subjected to humiliation on a daily basis. Luckily, these activists are not princesses.

These activists believe we should be treated as adults and humans and not as children and minors, and not as digraces to be covered. Activists who are tired of this reality of suffering and daily humiliation and so they call for the guardian system to be absolved.

These campaigners who stand againsts activists see nothing strange in the fact that we are the only Muslim country that bans women driving. Isn’t it funny that Saudi Arabia is unique in this odd religious aspect? But it has always been so. They don’t wonder as to how a woman’s freedom in our country has been choked and strangled a thousand times over,so that the poor soul cannot make a move without a male’s permission, a male who’s only distinction is his genitals. To the degree that we see nothing weird about a twenty year old being reprimanded by her ten year old brother.

My guardian knows what’s best for me, seriously?!

They do not see anything strange in that the women of their country cannot make the smallest move without their guardian’s permission. They have no right to leave their houses, to study, to go to a clinic…without their guardian’s permission. And the guardian is a woman’s father, brother or any related male until she marries. And then her guardian becomes her husband until either one of them dies. Her guardian may marry her off at ten, hit her, abuse her or may be kind to her, it’s all up to luck. Her life like a watermelon, it might open up to be red and sweet or bitter and rotten.

These campaigners live like princesses and the restrictions that stifle average women daily, do not apply to them. Have they ever faced a PVPV  commission member who stole their very breath. If a PVPV commission member even set his eyes on them, he would shake from fear, because the only power that the PVPV recognize is the power of your guardian. These men know nothing of religion.

My guardian knows what’s best for me, seriously?!

They never wonder and they never question. Instead in a naiveness that is to be envied, naiveness reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, they are bothered by the demands of the women who have suffered. And so they send to the king, asking him that this system of injustice be maintained.

They say “Who said we need to be human?”
“We do not want rights that contradict our customs!”

“Stop their demands!”

“Cut their tongues!”

“Silence their voices!”

“Leave us as we are!”

“An object in a degree closer to the animal! (With all due respect to animals)”

And surprisingly, I am not surprised. Not surprised by the campaign.
And you know why?
Because the history of  movements demanding women’s rights throughout the world, was full of similar campaigns to this “My guardian knows what’s best for me”. For every woman who demanded her rights, stood more women who cursed her, in the name of tradition, in the name of customs, in the name of religion (whatever that religion may be), and shamed her for seeking change.
This campaign is not strange.
It is similar to another campaign carried out by women in Switzerland in the twenties and then again in the fifties and sixties against women’s right to vote. They too used religion, customs and traditions as an excuse to stop development.

Even in this, they are not unique.
People, as I said before are people,in their wisdom, and strength and in their weakness and simplicity.
Here or there. No difference.

But my guardian does not know what’s best for me.
I am worthy of making my own decisions.
And only I know what’s best for me, even as I bow my head in respect to my father.  

Those campaigners insist on staying minors.
That is their decision. But who said that they speak on behalf of Saudi women?


Filed under Child marriages, Culture, Gender Apartheid, Women campaigns

My July article at Relativity Online

In the past decade, the Saudi government has been consistent in its approach to women’s participation in society and their availability of lifestyle choices. Conflict avoidance and postponement has been the answer to each and every request for more women rights. The Islamic perspective plays no role in these decisions and their more crucial implementation. In an Islamic state that prides itself on being the only country that truly rules according to Islamic Shariah, the lives of half of its citizens are exclusively run according to cultural and tribal traditions . . . and little else…to read more click here.


Filed under Gender Apartheid, unemployment, Women campaigns, Women driving

Love in KSA

Yesterday Riyadh Newspaper carried a story about a couple. Their relationship ended horribly when the guy blackmailed the girl into meeting him on a secluded roof. Only she came with a bottle of acid. She agreed that he would be there first waiting for her and when she got there he had already gotten down to his undies in anticipation but what he got was acid poured on his pelvic area. Unfortunately she was unable to get away before he had wrestled the acid from her and attacked her with it. They both started screaming in pain but no one came so they somehow managed to get down and run into the street where some civilians took them to the hospital. They were found to have 40% third degree burns and put in ICU.

What the guy was using to blackmail the girl was not mentioned in the article. However I’m betting that it was something relatively trivial like a photo with her face uncovered all dressed up to go to a party or maybe it was a tape recording of an illicit phone conversation, something that would not really be substantial enough to blackmail a single Muslim girl into sex anywhere else in the world except Saudi Arabia. What with so much being forbidden and our culture of shame one, shame the whole family, the stakes are so high. A girl who lets her guard down for a second sometimes will have to spend her whole life paying for it. I remember a friend of mine who was really smart and graduated from high school with a 98% and got accepted into the computer science department at King Saud University. Only she had the bad habit of making phone boyfriends during her years in high school, so her parents forced her the summer she graduated high school to marry a distant cousin who also happens to be a school drop out just so ‘yistir aliyha’, an Arabic term that means to cover her or to shield her from people’s talk. I visited her after she settled down and she told me that she had saved the bedsheet she lost her virginity to her husband on. I asked her why? She said it was like a keepsake but I believe it’s more than that. It’s her proof. Within a year she had a baby and we lost touch but I heard that she had many more babies and I don’t know if she ever got the chance to go to college. All because she liked to talk to guys over the phone. Granted that is a problem on a religious level but if it was only religion, her parents would have not taken such extremes to cure her of it. If this daughter got a reputation that she talks to guys, she would not only ruin her prospects of marriage, but that of her sisters. Hence her parents were sacrificing her for the sake of the family. It’s complicated with centuries and layers of tradition and culture and I’m not sure I personally want it to change but it would be nice if they would ease up a little on the girls so that they wouldn’t have to tote bottles of acid every time an innocent photo gets out.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid