Tag Archives: Saudi Society

What do Saudis Read?

Not much. I’ve had a few Saudis who after visiting a western country comment on how many westerners carry books around with them and read in public. They are always surprised that average people might actually enjoy reading. Books here are considered very intellectual. Once I was sitting in a waiting room at the hospital reading a David Lodge book and the woman sitting next to me took me for a college student studying. She wished me luck on my exam. And when I brought up reading for pleasure to my students many of them said “fathiya” (translation: nothing better to do or get a life). After these conversations, I get a little depressed. If only they knew how wonderful books are, especially for young women who are cooped up for most of the day. If only they knew the astronomical difference reading would change in how they view the world. They could read something as low as Tucker Max or read something that would help make them more aware of one of our cultural minorities like God of Small Things.  Unfortunately, they limit themselves to Arabic women magazines. The most popular of which is Sayidty.

This limitation of what they read starts early in a Saudi’s life. In schools they are not taught to appreciate all books. They are taught that if it’s not religious, scientific or at least a hundred years old then it’s rubbish. The majority of schools do not even have a library. The poor quality of Arabic children literature also plays a role. These books lack in creativity and publishing quality. And finally the difficulty of accessing books. Bookstores are few and far in between.

By the time they reach adulthood this lack of appreciation becomes ingrained. And the sort of Arabic literature available currently doesn’t help the situation. Most books are bad translations from English. The problem with translation is the translator might get the words and sentences right but the context and culture stays just out of reach. So a Saudi might enjoy a couple of these books but eventually gets bored with the minimally relatable characters. And then we come to Arabic literature. The issue here is what form of Arabic to use. Classical Arabic makes a book more respectable and less realistic. No one uses classical Arabic in real life and I repeat no one except passionate Arabic language scholar and even those use their own dialect outside of professional settings. However, if a writer uses a local dialect or somewhat contemporary Arabic, it won’t matter what the book is about, it will not be considered literature. And here let me refer you to Raja Al Sanea’s Girls of Riyadh. When it was first published it got banned from Saudi Arabia. The effect of that ban naturally increased its sales and Saudis from all walks of life secretly got the book and read it. I’m pretty sure they enjoyed it too. But if you were to ask Saudis what they thought of the book, most would dismiss it saying the author didn’t even bother to use classical Arabic. It isn’t “real” literature. The depictions were too close to life. It’s like gossip. She purposely put our dirty laundry on display. They don’t get that that is the point and that’s what makes the book literature.


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Comfort Zone

Today in Arab News there was an article about a talk given on women’s Rights by Al Jowhara Al Angari, vice chairman of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) on Saturday night at a meeting organized by the Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). In it she mentioned that most Saudi women do not know that once they are 45 years old and older they do not need their male guardian’s permission travel. This is news to me. I know my mother had gone on several trips abroad and each time the officials would ask her for her permission slip signed by my father. She even went to Jordan with my older brother and they still asked her to show her permission slip. But she has never taken the risk of going all the way to the airport without the slip. If it wasn’t required of her, shouldn’t the officials checking her passport have told her? Or when my father went to get it done and stamped, wouldn’t they have informed him that there was no need for it since she is above the age limit?

And then Al Angari spoke about how women do not ask for their rights out of ignorance. This might be true for the idealistic young but I know for a fact that many women here do NOT want their rights for themselves nor do they want any other woman to have them. That is because they are in their comfort zone, especially the fanatic religion students. These latter are continuously exposed to stories and evidence from the Quran that inform them of their rights but they don’t want them. Their excuse is “prevention of sin” or when they are hard-pressed they’ll say “these times are different from when the prophet (PBUH) lived”. And to this I always reply with the hadeeth* that Islam as it was revealed to the prophet is good for all time and all places. There is also an Islamic principle that states that all things should be considered permissible in Islam unless clearly prohibited by Allah in the holy Quran or hadeeth.  And I go on to ask them if they believe that their judgment about the times is better than Allah’s. This ultimately shuts them up and I have yet to meet a mutawa who can still carry an argument after that point.

Back to Saudi women comfort zone. Why would they ask for rights when that would mean taking on responsibility. They don’t want rights that would take away their current excuses for not being educated and independent and turn them obsolete. It will take away their convenient excuse for not studying, getting a job or even getting milk from the nearest grocer.

*Hadeeth: the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) sayings and acts

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Great Saudi News Source

While surfing the channels, I sometimes pass by Watani channel. This channel is basically a screen with short written summaries of news stories as they break. International news on a line at the bottom of the screen and a big white box in the middle covers local news. What’s special about this particular news source is that they cover local news that is not published in any newspaper, many of which are quite sensational. Two examples is on the Thursday they ran a story about a Saudi high ranking General being found burned to death in his car in an area north of Riyadh. And his family had reported him missing a couple of days earlier. Read the newspapers Friday …nothing. I googled Saudi general in English and Arabic and again nothing. On Saturday the story came out but it was only that a body of a 56 year old Saudi army general was found burned in a car north of Riyadh, close to Al Yamama College. No mention of names or cause of the fire. The chat forums were a lot more helpful. Especially one that gave the name of the general and the member also claimed to having had a phone conversation with the son of the deceased. He claims that the son told him that his father left the house on the Monday before in an apparently depressed mood and that he had left behind his wallet and cell phone. He also said that his father gave his mother a will in an envelope. Upon opening it and realizing what it was, they informed the police. Naturally, after this story everyone has assumed that he committed suicide. I find that hard to believe. But then I digress. Back to the Watani channel. It had the news first, on the day it broke and other news sources waited for a couple of days but they were not much more informative than the original source.

Another story I read on Watani that I know for a fact will not show up anywhere else except forums (translation from Arabic):

Investigations concerning a non gender segregated party organized by a Gynecology hospital in Madinah in which the director of the hospital and the general director of hospitals in a ministry were present.  Threats about terminating the director’s contract. And there was a Bluetooth video of the party taken by one of the female employees which has pushed a number of husbands to officially complain.

I bet it was probably a quite mild and conservative party measured by international standards but to many Saudis, just having men and women mingling is equivalent to an orgy. Anyways if you can read Arabic and are in Saudi Arabia you can get Watani news on your mobile by sending an empty text to 82410. To tune in it’s Arabsat or Hotbird Satellite 11075 V 27500.

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Muttawa lecture

This is a video from utube. It has been on there for 4 months. It’s a typical Islamic lecture from a quite eloquent and articulate sheikh. Below I’ve translated the whole thing and I tried to stay as literal in my translation as possible. You can’t experience his eloquence in Arabic but you’ll have to take my word for it, he’s pretty good. Read on and make your own conclusions.
Look to the vice cops, God bless them, what they did with the illegitimate children (orphan bastards) that came into this world not knowing who their parents are. One social worker told me about a field trip they took these children on. They took them to Abha and they were enjoying the scenery. Then they saw a group of monkeys frolicking and playing. So the kids started to yell: look at the monkeys! There’s one with its mother. Another child replied yes he is a monkey but he’s better off than us because he at least has a mother. The social worker said I couldn’t even turn to the child. I was that speechless. So I waited until the child moved away and I said God bless the vice cops. How many cases have they prevented that would have produced more miserable bastards.
Now look at what crime the devil has pushed people into committing. When she was flirting with him she didn’t know and when he was flirting with her, he didn’t know. And when they were exchanging gifts, they didn’t know. They are like us but the devil pushed them step by step until they got into trouble. The important issue here is that she became pregnant through fornication. She’s in trouble. The devil got her and it’s making her walk its path. The devil told her to kill the baby and everything will end. And the case ends here in that the infant is killed and put into the toilet. (points to the photo)
But the case has not ended. I swear that this murdered infant will rise up judgment day and she’ll go looking through all of creation and she will speak as Allah mentioned in the holy Quran: (quote from the Quran: rough translation: And when the murdered infant girls will ask for what sin was I killed)

For what sin was I killed, oh Lord? And Allah will not leave us to fend for ourselves. I swear by Allah who is the only god and who has obligated us to follow the Quran. He wanted so for a certain end (or reason). When we see the vice cops… The vice cops, I ask Allah to bless them because I swear they are the safety clip (or cap) for this ummah (people). I swear how many incident were prevented that were going to bear the likes of those (fornication, illegitimate pregnancies and children).

But now let me give  you the last part of this lecture. One illegitimate young man told me that he saved and saved to go to Hajj. And he swore that when he got there people were praying and asking Allah but he waited until Arafah, the day that prayers are most likely to be answered. The day Allah comes down in a way that’s appropriate and suiting to his holiness to display to his angels his human servants. The young man went on to say that other people were praying to be saved from hell and some were praying to go to heaven. But that he was only praying for one thing all day: Oh Lord whoever was the reason behind me being in this world, Oh Lord just as they have deprived me my rights, rights that animals have and I don’t. A mother and a father. Oh Lord do not grant them heaven. Oh Lord of all worlds.

I wonder does his mother know? At the time he was praying was she above the ground or below it? And that father? Where is he? We don’t know but Allah in all his holiness does know.




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Sandstorms and My Ancestors

These past two weeks Riyadh has seen on and off sandstorms. When it’s really bad it kind of looks like a yellowish brown blizzard. People with asthma and allergies are confined to their houses and it’s not strange to see some people walking around with surgical masks on. No matter what you do, the sand gets in and settles on everything. My husband even got those adhesive strips that you can stick to the bottom and sides of doors, and still I can smell a grainy sandy smell inside the house. What really helped was getting a humidifier.

I don’t mind the sandstorms as much as other people do. It makes me wonder about my ancestors. And why people dress the way they do. The red and white cloths Saudi men wear now only to preserve tradition, served a true practical purpose in the past. In sandstorms they would wrap the cloth around their mouth and nose and the black band on the forehead prevented the headdress from flying away into the wind. And women did not wear abayas back then. They wore long dresses that did not define their waists and some of these dresses had sleeves that hang down so very low so that they can use the extra cloth for modesty if an unrelated man comes in. They also would have big square light cloths of different colors on hand for when they need to walk outside. These are what they now only use for prayer.

Later on in the late sixties and early seventies, abayas started to catch on. Women would still wear long dresses and put the abaya tent-style over their head but they would also grab the whole abaya in the two nooks of their elbows so that from the waist down you can see what she is wearing underneath. Kuwaiti, Emirati and even up in Iraq women dressed similarly. And then the mutawas were no longer responsible for unifying the different regions of Saudi Arabia so they turned their focus on to us poor women.  Just shows you how much politics influences even the smallest details of our lives.

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An al Watan Article

On the 25th of March there was an article in the Arabic Saudi newspaper Al Watan which drew my attention and not only because of the content but more so because of the comments. The article was written by Halema Mathfer. And since I’m not a big reader of this particular newspaper, the name didn’t ring a bell. But according to the comments, apparently this isn’t the first time she (the journalist) has written about women’s rights in KSA. The title roughly translates into The Abaya and sex segregation…have they stopped sexual harassment?. After reading the article I found that it goes beyond sexual harassment and into the two-faced nature or duality of some aspects of our culture. What the writer was trying to get at is that neither the Abaya nor our “special” ways have put an end to sexual harassment cases. According to her The Saudi Interior Ministry has published statistics that the number of sexual harassment cases have risen from 1031 three years ago to 3253 two years ago. Rape cases have gone up by 75% and the kidnapping of women by 10%.

Now considering the source of this information and that they only made public statistics from two years ago, I wonder what the real numbers are. Another point is that frankly, as a Saudi woman, if I or a relative of mine had been subjected to any of the above, my family would think twice about reporting it to the authorities. And Al HamdlAllah I come from a relatively open-minded family. I bet when you count in the unreported cases the real numbers would be much higher.

Going back to the article, she goes on to write that she knows that some people are going to tense up after reading the statistics and that they will no doubt probably start blaming “satanic” women for seducing men into committing these horrendous acts, especially women who don’t wear the Islamic Abaya (tent-like on their heads). Regardless of what these people think, the numbers tell us that it goes beyond the style of the Abaya or segregating the sexes because the majority of Saudi woman wear it in the Islamic style and most places are segregated and yet these things occur. 

To explain this phenomenon she believes that it is due to the confusion and double standards we have here in KSA between obligations of traditional society, the requirements of city life and cultural globalization, and what is asked of us by the religious community. This confusion has caused Saudis to care about religion only on a superficial level rather than the quintessence. And it has turned many of us into professional actors. She goes on to give examples of this like the Imam who stands on his lectern and preaches against liberal satellite channels and then the next day is seen accepting monetary offers in dollars to exclusively star on a show on those very same channels. Another example that she gave is that the Ministry of Education forbids schools to play music when singing the national anthem but the Media Ministry allows it on the official Saudi channels. This confusion added to the rise in unemployment, delays in getting married and the limited recreational and educational outlets has shaken our values and integrity. It has brought about these needs and wants and with no Islamic substitutes to fill them. Above all, we have these traditional unyielding appearances that have to be kept up.

In the next post I’ll cover the comments that were posted below this article.


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The scare tactic in our society is truly hilarious. Some of the stuff that I’ve experienced or heard myself over the years are numerous but I’ll mention a few here. Like there’s a fatwa that says that it is haram (prohibited) in Islam to tweeze your eyebrows so you get fanatic women going around the salons harassing customers getting their eyebrows tweezed. It’s so bad that some salons have private backrooms for tweezing. And other salons advertise that they are Wahhabi fanatic friendly by not even offering the service of tweezing. Girls are told in many schools that the reason behind the Prohibition is that each eyebrow hair is connected to a brain cell and when it’s tweezed out, the cell dies. I guess that explains the dumb ditsy model/cheerleader stereotype.

In school I’ve heard this metaphor over and over again. [loose translation] A girl who shows off her beauty by uncovering her face or displaying herself in any way is like an iced cake that is left out so that people going by could use their fingers to scrape a lick. By the time it reaches her husband, the icing is all gone. And they say the west objectifies women.

In one of the schools I went to the dhar prayer was mandatory for everyone. And as you know, we Muslim women don’t  pray if we’re menstruating. So when its time to pray the admins would round up all the students who can’t pray in one room and record their names. If a student gets her name recorded more than seven days in a row, she is sent to the Principal’s office. Although this private school is famous for it’s conservatism, they stopped doing the mandatory prayer thing. I’ve never heard of a public school that does this now.


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