Tag Archives: Women in Saudi

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

Another child bride

There is nothing that gets the Saudi government to act like shining the western media spotlight on it. Once the spotlight dims, things usually go back to the way they were. A while back there was all this attention about who I call the child bride of Onaiza, and accordingly the marriage never took place and a huge discussion of plans for laws regulating marital age for both girls and boys were thrown around. Shiekhs were consulted, government officials made statements and proposals. Once the topic stopped coming up abroad, things pretty much went back to where they were. That’s why it would be fantastic if the international media picked up the story published today in Arab News about a 10 year old girl being handed over to an 80 year old man by none other than her own father. She ran away and sought refuge at her aunt’s house but her father managed to take her back to her husband. The 80 year old claims that he originally asked for her older sister but she refused so the father offered the poor 10 year old instead and the geezer took him up on it.

Maybe media attention so soon within this short span of time could be just what we need to firmly set up laws to protect these girls.  


Filed under Child marriages

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

Are you a muttawa?

Katie Couric from CBS News stops a Saudi man on the street and asks him if he is a muttawa. I found that really funny. You don’t ask a religious fanatic if he is a religious fanatic. The way that she stood there and with a matter of fact attitude claimed that women are not allowed to go to the open market unescorted. Couldn’t she have asked a Saudi? I’m speculating here but she probably asked some non-Saudi Arab translator (Lebanese or Egyptian), someone who probably doesn’t even live in Riyadh.

To set the record straight, I could right now go alone to that very same market and shop until I drop and no one would say a thing. It just happens that she was probably filming on a weekday night and hence there weren’t that many people of either sex. And the term muttawa is a colloquial term that should not be used by a reporter and especially not to ask someone who might be a muttawa. It comes from the Arabic word mutatwa and it basically means volunteer because men are not paid that much to monitor morality in society. Now in Saudi slang it has negative connotations and is used to refer to someone (man or woman) who is a self-righteous Islamic fundamentalist that goes around correcting people regardless of whether or not they are employed by the PVPV. A true muttawa would call himself a member of Al Hisba which means ‘those who hold people accountable’. And their over the top religious life style is called Eltizam and so the person would refer to himself as multizim.


Filed under Regional and International

14,300 applications per day

On April 23rd newspapers reported that 100,000 applicants applied within one week of first announcing vacancies in women government jobs. While a month before it took three weeks to get 50,000 applicants for men government jobs. And the report quietly disappeared without much fuss about its implications and the hopelessness that Saudi women are going through. Yes it’s true that education is free and the majority of these women never had to pay tuition fees on school or university, actually they were given a monthly allowance (stipend) for studying after high school. Saudis have been paid to study since higher education first opened in the country as a way to get more people literate faster. And it worked because just three generations ago literacy was less than 50%.

 It worked so well that most people younger than forty have a college degree. And even though women studied and graduated in larger numbers than men, yet it seems like they are expected to think of the whole educational experience as a past-time or just something to make them more desirable as marriage material. Now that all the segregated fields (mostly education) are bursting at the seams with all that human resources, the rest of these women have nowhere to go and little money to spend.

To have a hundred thousand applicants in one week in a part of society with which mobility is an issue should be a matter of great concern, especially considering that there are over 5 million migrant workers taking up jobs like selling lingerie, waiters and chefs and even our hotel industry is mostly run by non Saudis. All the while, Saudi women wilt at home waiting for the government to employ them in jobs that are proper for them to take. Because if they don’t take up something proper they are very likely to have our society drag their reputation and that of their families in the mud. Society does this in its own quiet way without much word getting back to the women concerned. The only apparent sign is a dry up in the number of suitors to all the daughters of that family. Just this week a Saudi news website gave this cultural punishment to a group of Saudi women journalists in a much louder form. The website reported that these lady reporters slept with their editors, smoked pot, drank and had so-called red nights at vacation houses on the outskirts of the city. And I’m glad to say that these women are fighting back with a lawsuit against the website. A lawsuit that the ladies are highly likely to win because our courts tend to bring the hammer down hard when it comes to making outright false allegations that tarnish family honor.  

 Financial gain in the form of student stipends and later employment salaries has gotten women over the mountain of family consent to study and then teach. Even the most conservative daddies and hubbies just can’t resist that boost to the family income. With the economy slowing down and the rise in living costs, financial gain might again come to the rescue of women in the form of larger numbers of families no longer being able to afford drivers and in expanding society’s definition of proper jobs for women.

For more on the topic you can read an earlier  post. And this post from the Susie of Arabia blog.


Filed under Gender Apartheid, Informative, unemployment

I am not a bolger!

I’m a blogger. This is what was written in Arab News today, the leading Saudi English paper in an article about women’s sports clubs here. Another thing that I’m not is a social worker. I’m a lecturer. I teach English as a foreign language and for specific academic purposes.  But what I was really disappointed in was that the writer got my viewpoint all wrong. She asked me what I thought about religious people using the government to close down sports clubs. The issue being that these clubs are increasingly becoming popular with Saudi women. Women only sports clubs have been popping up everywhere and their fees are now within reach of the average woman. They offer aerobic classes, self-defense and even salsa dancing. However they have no legal licensing umbrella because according to the government all forms of exercise are for men only. So the owners of these clubs get a license for a salon or a child activity center and then expand from there. Ultra conservatives are dead against these establishments because they believe that they lead Saudi women to sin through the influence of and interaction with unsavory feminist and sometimes they go as far as lesbian women who work there and frequent the clubs (according to the muttawa sexually repressed wild imagination). Moreover they believe that exercise goes against femininity and that it is an exclusively manly domain.

In the eighties and nineties there weren’t many of these sports clubs around and if one does open, the muttawas would camp outside its doors and harass the owner and workers until it closes down out of frustration. Then these muttawas would preach about the sins that they uncovered and led to their victory in closing the club.  

Now that they are all over the place and extremely high in demand the muttawas logistically cannot take the same approach. So what they are doing is taking a top down approach through bureaucratic nonsense. And that is what I meant by their reaction being natural. I do not support the government in closing them down but I do believe that licensing should be done properly. What the ultra conservatives are doing is futile because its too little, too late. It’s the same thing over and over again with satellite TV, camera cell phones, music stores …etc. The general public demands them too much for these conservatives to be able to stop their spread. And now they are taking on womens sports clubs which will only lead them to be legalized and taken off the black market into the light, just like their other “sinful” predecessors.  


Filed under Eman

The child bride of Onaiza

This story has drawn a lot of press. The girl is from Onaiza which is a part of Qaseem, a central region north of Riyadh. It’s the same place that produced Sheikh Bin Othaimeen and it’s most known for how fanatic and social the people there are about religion. And how the women of families there dress and live is the expression of the whole family’s piousness and honour. Just to give you a flavor of how people think of women over there, I’ll tell you a couple of incidents that I’ve come across when visiting. A relative of mine has a daughter who when she was around ten became quite good with rollerblading and would skate in their tiled big yard all day. Once my relative while watching her daughter skating, it occurred to her that the daughter might fall and seriously injure herself. So out of concern for her daughter’s wellbeing, she deprived the girl of her favourite activity. That sounds bad but what was truly crazy was the injury the mother was worried about was not broken bones but rather that the girl might have a freakish accident and lose her hymen.

Another incident was one time when I was visiting for a holiday, an occasion came up for which I had nothing to wear. So I thought I might pick up something from the local stores. My sister in law came with me and we dressed appropriately with the tent style abayas and covered faces. Unfortunately when we got to the mall, a muttawa found fault in that I had neglected to wear thick black socks over my ankles and would not let us shop. He followed us from shop to shop yelling how we should fear God until we went home empty-handed.

So to say that that part of Saudi Arabia is not the norm is a very happy conclusion. To get back to the girl, her case is not uncommon when parents divorce and the father takes custody. Many financially strapped fathers in this case neglect their daughters’ schooling or even pull them out of school and marry then off as soon as they can. But usually that’s around when the girls are 15. All just to spite the ex-wife. But what makes this girl stand out is her brave mother who would not take it. I am not sad that this happened to this particular girl because I know with all the publicity and support behind the mother it is highly unlikely that the 50ish groom will ever get to lay a hand on the girl. All across the Saudi media, there has been an outcry condemning him. I’ve read many calls by average Saudis for his name and photo to be published so they can shame him. Others suggest that the man’s own daughters should be forcefully married off at eight and see how he likes it.

The judge presiding over the case is not all that popular either. In court he stated that it is in the interest of the girl’s welfare that he would not annul the marriage and everyone is wondering what that means. In what way would it be in the interest of the child to stay married to her father’s friend? Just like in the Qatif girl’s case when the judge said that there are particulars concerning the rape victim that only the court knew about, the judge in the child bride case is hiding behind vague statements. Average Saudis have started to question this ambiguity in courts and demand more transparency.

This whole case will through example affect many mothers who will be able to gain strength in speaking out against this happening to their daughters.


For those of you who have not bothered to read the news article linked at the beginning of this post, the girl is NOT with her 50 year old husband and the judge has ordered that she remain with her family until puberty. Then she will be granted the right to choose between remaining married and moving in with her husband or asking for a divorce. The mother and uncle are currently appealing this verdict because they want an immediate anullment.


Filed under Child marriages

Divorce in Saudi Arabia

No matter how many reports you read about the rise in numbers of divorce cases in Saudi Arabia, it still remains a dirty word that Saudis are taught not to even contemplate. For my generation and those younger, there is a growing number who rebel. But for older couples it is still very true. No matter how much they hate each other, divorce is not an option. “Real” men and women never divorce. We are taught in schools that it is the most abhorred by God of all things Islamically permitted. Couples have separate bedrooms on different floors and lead chiefly separate lives and yet are still married. A man might take on a second wife and not see his first except twice a month to pay the bills and buy groceries. He does it because he thinks its manly and the woman stays on and is patient because that’s what a good woman does.

This like all other things is changing. After reading a report on this in Arab News, I thought I would write a bit about it. In Saudi Arabia there are two ways to obtain a divorce depending on who initiates it, the first is easy and can be done by the husband and the second is extremely hard and is reserved for the wife. The first can be done by the husband simply by deciding in his heart to divorce his wife and in effect this becomes valid immediately. Then in his own time he can go to the courts and obtain a document of his decision and send a copy to the ex-wife. Alimony and child custody is not a big deal either and definitely not mandated. Several women I personally know have never gotten any financial support from their ex-husbands. And in the case they are allowed child custody, its only because the father is not interested in caring for the kids. So in essence he is allowing the mother to have them. This and most other issues related to family law is only loosely based on Islam and what really goes on is the absolute vilification of the wife in court while the husband is always taken at his word. I know you might be thinking that I’m exaggerating but seriously I’m not.

When it comes to the wife initiating a divorce it is a whole different issue. It’s not even called divorce, it’s called khula which literally means taking off as in taking off clothes or jewelry. What the woman has to do is prove that the husband did something. Abuse whether physical or verbal does not get a woman far in court even with a medical report because the Saudi judges tend to believe that she probably did something to provoke it. The only proof that will absolve the woman and get her treated favorably is one of three; proof that the husband is a drug addict, has AIDS or being a daughter of a VIP. Otherwise the process is stressful, expensive and might lead to her never seeing her children again. In one case the judge and his assistants demanded from the wife that she detail her husband’s performance in bed. Another woman had to pay her dowry back in full after more than a decade of marriage and four children. Some of those years she financially supported her then husband and yet she still had to give back the money he spent on her as a young bride and give up child custody completely. To rub salt into injury, she was hushed in court while listening to the guy tell everyone there including her father and brothers how horny she was and that she wouldn’t be doing this unless she had someone else in mind to marry.

However after everything settles down, within society it is much better for a woman to obtain a khula rather than be divorced. Divorced women are usually viewed as having done something wrong but a woman who obtains a khula is a victim. It’s as if society understands that the difficulty of the process shows in some way that women do not go through with it except as a last resort after being tremendously wronged.


Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid