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Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

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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.

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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

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“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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reSURFACE

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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 Saudiwomanblog@gmail.com

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My piece in Newsweek: No Sacred Space

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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:

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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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