Category Archives: Popular

Saudi woman top five blog posts

I dragged these out because I enjoyed writing them and they are representative of a side of Saudi that rarely is shown to the outside world. Click on the header of each for a link to the actual post.

1) The Saudi Supernatural World

In Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general, people strongly believe in the supernatural world. This world that we believe in is  different right down to its roots from the supernatural phenomena in the rest of the world. There is no emphasis on ancestral spirits or ghosts of dead people. To us dead people are dead and its final, and supernatural phenomena is due to the existence of another dimension that is peopled with creatures called Jinn. This post explains the common beliefs held by most Saudis regarding this.

2) The problem lies within

This post explains why it is that the status quo regarding women rights is maintained.

3) Line 110 or 220 volts?

This is about the tribal divisions and traditions within Saudi society.

4) Blackmail: Saudi style

This is on how some Saudi men make use of the cultural restrictions on women by manipulating vulnerable Saudi women into giving up their photos and blackmailing them with the photos in exchange for sex.

5) The reasoning behind the ban on women driving.

This is a translation of the illogical rhetoric that those supporting the ban repeat over and over and over…

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Filed under Personal favorites, Popular

A Hero: Farman Ali Khan

Black Wednesday is what many people have been calling 25th of November when Jeddah got its heaviest rains that resulted in flooding and the death of over 120 people. Videos, photos and articles on the flooding and the damage are aplenty online, but one story I believe has not got its due attention. Farman Ali Khan was a 32 year old Pakistani migrant worker at a grocery store in Jeddah. In his six years in Saudi Arabia, he had only been able to visit his family back home twice. His youngest Jarira, 4 years old, has never seen her daddy alive. This man who had every reason to save himself, as he is his family’s sole provider and yet he set out that day to save as many people as he could.

Farman Ali Khan saved 14 people from drowning. His neighbor told reporters that Farman gave him his wallet and cell phone for safekeeping. He then tied one end of a rope to a pipe and the other around his waist and stood at the edge of the heart of the flooding looking for people to pull out. Those he couldn’t reach swimming and wading, he would reach to them with a wood pole. He kept going back until the water got the better of him and he went under.

Farman left behind his wife and three daughters, Zubaida, 7, Madeeha, 6, and Jarira, 4. And now there is a huge campaign on Facebook with over 22,000 members, the majority of whom are Saudi. They are campaigning for a Jeddah street to be named after Farman, that he be rewarded with the King Abdulazziz Medal and that his family be compensated financially.

To read more about Farman: English, Arabic.

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Saudi Shewolf

This song by Shakira inspired a friend of mine to do something really wild. Thursday night after a social obligation, she tucked her kids into bed and waited until they fell asleep. At about 1:30 am she put on one of her husband’s shmaghs (Saudi head-dresses), opened the garage door and drove out! And this is not some reckless teenager; she’s a working mother in her thirties. She told me that it was the most liberating feeling she had ever experienced. She has a valid driving license and has driven a lot abroad but somehow she says this was different.

As she was heading home at about 4 am, she made a right turn on a major street in Riyadh just as a BMW filled with young Saudi men was making a U-turn on the street she was turning into. She accidentally made eye-contact with a guy sitting in the back. Although she had most of her face masked in the shmagh, just from that one look he somehow knew she was a woman and the chase was on!

random picture for illustration

Suddenly a few motorcycles joined in and she found herself being pushed to the curb with the BMW in front and the motorcycles to her left. The guys in the BMW opened their doors and started to get out, apparently to walk towards her. She says at that moment she suddenly felt possessed. She put her car into park, pushed on the gas pedal a couple of times for effect and then turned the car onto the motorcycles. They cleared out and she sped away. She called her husband and told him the situation. He hurriedly got dressed and waited outside. He saw her coming with her trail of pursuers and she drove right through the garage door as he closed it after her. The BMW stopped at the house and her husband stood his ground and looked at them questioningly. The driver opened his window and said we were just surprised to see a Saudi woman driving. He told them to mind their own business and they drove off. The whole thing was literally like a scene out of a movie!

The adrenaline rush got her through her husband’s lecture and later he couldn’t help express admiration for the driving maneuvers he witnessed. He went as far as to tell her that if they were not Saudis, she should have been a racecar driver.

This post was written with my friend’s permission on the condition that she remains anonymous.

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Filed under Fun, Personal favorites, Popular, Women driving

Sandstorm

Today we had a really bad sandstorm. In the morning you would have never guessed. I left the house at 7:30 and the sky was blue and clear. Later in the day, I was going to pick up my son after a lecture and I had to drive (be driven) right into it. I took a few photos. You can actually see it approaching on the horizon. A trip that normally takes 45 minutes took twice that long. Cars were hardly moving and sirens were wailing. Firetrucks, ambulances and police cars were following the storm. It probably was a really bad day for people with asthma.

sandstorm coming!

driving towards it

in the midst of it

you can only make out the outline of buildings overlooking the highway

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Shias and Sunnis in Saudi Arabia

Long before the Madinah affair, I’ve thought about writing a post on the difference between Shia and Sunnis and then I thought why put myself in a minefield of misunderstandings. After reconsideration, I reasoned that nothing ever gets resolved by keeping quiet so I might as well write. When the Madinah affair happened this week, I tried to get informed but that is not possible with our “on a strict need to know” basis news organizations and biased websites. Youtube is even worse, all I could find on there was a bunch of chaotic crowds that could be either Sunni or Shia. So this is not a post on that particular incident, it’s a general post from someone who was raised Sunni, visited Qatif (where Saudi Shias are concentrated) and taught hundreds of students of both sects.  

 Before the international spread of the internet and Iraqi war, not much was heard or written about sectarian differences in Islam. The majority of Arabs are Sunnis with Arab Shias concentrated in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq. In Saudi Arabia they are a minority with most originating from the eastern region. The break in Islam into the two sects reminds me of the break between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, with Shias resembling the Catholics with all these saints and rituals and Sunnis resembling Orthodoxies with an emphasis on puritanical practices. I have seen paintings of Ali bin Talib (RAA) that could just as well have been paintings of Jesus in a church with the beard and long hair. Saudi Sunnis interpretation of Islam could be considered as parallel to the Amish and Mormon interpretations of Christianity. If you squint and glaze over the details, the history looks quite similar, with Islam currently being in its own version of the Dark Age.  

At a more personal level my experience has been mostly neutral with phases of mystification with what I hear about Shias. However my sources were questionable as they were other Sunnis like myself. I have attempted a few times to ask Shias I know about their interpretation but it was awkward and uncomfortable. Online it’s even worse when you are looking for answers from a Sunni to Shia perspective and vice versa because those forums are just a bunch of narrow minded idiots exchanging vulgar insults.

Growing up, I would hear about Shias, mostly students studying at the colleges here in the capital. Within Saudi Sunni circles controversy surrounding the Shias centers around four claims:  

1- Warnings that Shias gain religious points by harming Sunnis

2- Watch Shias the day after Ashoora (Islamic day) because they always wear long sleeves and turtle-necks to hide their injuries

3- They reject and insult some of the prophet’s closest companions.

4- And of course Mutaa’ marriages (pleasure based marriages that are temporary and require no witnesses or legal papers). And I would like to note here that I was shocked to learn that this was also ok in Sunni Islam until very late in the Prophet Muhamed’s lifetime (PBUH).

When my family lived in the US we became good friends with another Saudi family who happened to be Shias from Qatif. Once back in Saudi Arabia, we visited them at their home in Qatif. It was quite fun. The family was liberal and we all sat together men and women. They also introduced us to the man’s brother and we got invited to the brother’s house as well. It was generally a pleasant experience. Qatif itself is similar to Qaseem; lots of old building and a whole bunch of areas that are called villages but to me might as well be one great big city because the distance between them doesn’t qualify them to be separate villages. They returned the visit when they came to Riyadh and the wife did something that my whole family thought was strange. They were over for dinner but she would not eat or drink anything. This could be something idiosyncratic especially considering that her husband was natural and dug in with the rest of us. But my family could not help but think that it was rude and that she might have done something to our food when we were over at their house. Again this might have nothing to do with religion or she might have thought that we meant to harm her as part of our Sunni practices. The friendship originated with the men and was strong between my father and her husband. The ladies, my mother and the wife were just playing nice and her not even drinking a cup of tea put a damper on things. Later on I got to know a lot more Saudi Shias as colleagues and students. What makes them stand out is their Arabic accent which reminds me of the Bahraini Arabic accent and the fact that they are generally more serious and hard-working than my Najdi and Hijazi students. They rarely have the spoiled materialistic air about them that the others do.

I predict that sectarian differences will remain for awhile and some warfare will be based on it, as is the case in Iraq. But eventually Arab Muslims will see the pointlessness of their squabbles and inequities. They’ll learn to be more religiously introspective rather than the current state of self-righteousness and fixation on correcting everybody else’s beliefs.

  This post was not meant to offend anyone and I welcome comments here.

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Filed under Culture, Popular

The Saudi Obsession

Saudi men are obsessed with women. That is a fair statement that few will argue. Some will even go as far as to say that most men are, regardless of nationality. But the degree to which Saudis are obsessed is amazing. When I read about and firsthand experience how men view women, it makes me feel sub-human. Strangely this is not shared by my fellow country women. I am always shocked at how many Saudi women believe that they really are sub humans that can be compared to glass bottles, flowers, cakes and sheep preyed on by Saudi wolves.  A funny story that illustrates the objectification of women here is a story a friend told me today. She works at a medical training environment so it is mixed gender. The men were performing afternoon prayer when a woman colleague walked by. She was wearing loose formal pants, a knee length lab-coat and her hair and face were covered in black except for the eyes. After the prayer, the director of the facility called a female manager to his office and demanded to know who the woman who walked by was. He was outraged because he claimed that her walking by them during prayer caused them all to be sexually aroused! And so that ruined their prayer. And now unlike the majority of medicine related facilities, women employees are not allowed to wear pants.

 Another interesting example is a fatwa that Turki Al Dakheel republished in an article this week. I absolutely love the guy. He reminds me of my husband. They both originally come from the same ultra conservative Qaseemi city of Buraida and they both have gone through the dark tunnel of muttawaism to come out the other side enlightened and better individuals. Anyway the fatwa  is in answer to a question on the Islamic viewpoint on women participating in online public forums and the sheikh answered:

A woman is allowed to participate as long as she restricts herself to the following:

1- Her participation should only be minimal; to ask her question or topic and leave. She should not comment unnecessarily because the aim is to keep her safe from talking to men and mixing with them.

2- Her writing should not contain anything that would incite a fitnah (prelude to sin), such as joking, writing flirtatiously or laughing as in LOOOL, or the use of  emotion-showing symbols like smiling faces because that will lead to rouse the greed of sick hearts (sick as in bad not ill).And then he gives an extract from the Quran meaning {O Consorts of the Prophet! ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear (Allah) be not too complaisant of speech lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech that is just} Al Ahzab/32

3- She should avoid giving out her Email or privately messaging a man even if it is for help because this messaging will most likely cause fitnah and hearts to connect.

4- Most importantly and better is for a woman to only participate in women only forums because that is safer for her. And these forums are now many and they are full of good and richness. And if she needs to participate in general forums it would be best if she used a username that does not show that she is female. And Allah is more knowledgeable.  

The comments on this article were 380 and some women replied with a long Arabic LOL in defiance and others expressed their disappointment in Turki Al Dakheel for taking a shiekh’s fatwa lightly.

And this distortion of women’s humanity goes beyond borders in many Saudi men’s heads. A Saudi acquaintance of mine told me that he always thought that the ex in ex-girlfriend stood for extended as in western women are so cheap that it is ok for them  to be one of many girlfriends of one guy. I don’t know how he could have missed the exs in ex-boyfriend, ex-wife and ex-husband. Maybe his wishful thinking blocked them out on a subconscious level.

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Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid, Popular

Confiscated Abayas

Today I went to a major mall here in Riyadh to pick up an abaya I had ordered and instead got a story. The abaya was supposed to be ready yesterday but when I got to the shop there was an off vibe to it. The abayas on the racks were plain. The creative cuts and colors that had attracted me just four days ago to make a spontaneous purchase were nowhere to be seen. And as soon as the sales clerk saw me he said um Sulaiman, I wish you had left a number so I could have saved you a trip. It turns out that Wednesday Feb 4th a huge abaya raid was undertaken all across Riyadh. They went around in groups of three; a muttawa Vice police escorted by a Riyadh Principality employee and a police officer. At the mall I went to, they first headed to the shop I mentioned above and the unlucky sales clerk had a customer at the time who was sitting on an armchair in the shop and discussing an abaya that she wanted made. The first thing the muttawa did was express shock and disgust that  the shop allowed women to sit. Then he looked at the abaya order that the clerk was filling out and told the lady off for ordering a 750 riyal abaya. And then he demanded that the clerk show him a 750 riyal abaya. The clerk pointed at an abaya with cuffs decorated with crystals and the muttawa grabbed it off the rack and stuffed it into one of his big trash bags. Then he went through all the racks and grabbed anything that looked “worldy” and decorative and stuffed them all in his bags. Before leaving, the muttawa also took the sale clerk’s residency card and ordered him to remove the chairs and a little mirror nook that was there for women to try on the abayas. (They take the residency card so that the Saudi sponsor would have to come to them and they could give him a little talking to as well.) Meanwhile word got around and the other abaya shops in the mall hurriedly locked up and their clerks ran off before the raid got to them. The raid group went all around the mall getting the shop numbers of all the abaya shops even though they were closed. So that they could come back tomorrow and they did. Not only that, but similar raid groups went all over Riyadh, not only raiding shops but also factories and warehouses. Abaya shopkeepers called and warned each other and because they knew the shops and factories were unsafe they took the abayas home. The last raid was Friday evening and it has been quiet since then.  

The sales clerk that I had the little conversation with has been selling abayas in Saudi Arabia for the past 13 years and he told me that a few years ago the vice police went as far as to jail him for four days just because he was doing his job. He told me that his shop’s abaya factory lost something between 50 to 60 thousand riyals from the raids this weekend!  He also said that it had been a few years since the last time that the vice police would actually confiscate decorated abayas. The past few years all they did was give something like warning tickets to all the shops that were selling decorative abayas. The other two accompanying the muttawa, the police officer and the principality employee, mostly just stood by while the Vice cop did his job. They were there only to show that the raid was official and not just a thing a muttawa did on a whim.   

Update Feb 12th

The raids did not stop and now the story is confirmed. If you go to any mall in Riyadh for an abaya, you won’t be able to find anything displayed except the extreme plain tent style. Some shops were even closed because the mutawas found that all their abayas are decorative. One shop specialized in fancy abayas lost an estimate  of 900,000 riyals. Local newspapers to my knowledge have not picked this up. I wish they would.

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Blackmail: Saudi Style

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.

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Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid, Informative, Popular