With the exception of the Human Rights Organization, to my knowledge there are no organized associations or unions of women rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Those who care are doing it individually and at the local level quietly. Most of them, like myself, are talking to the outside world more than the inside. On the other hand, women who believe in their own oppression are organized in so called religious groups; Quran circles, charity organizations, and teach their point of view in schools. They have seemingly infinite financial backing to publish all the literature they need to get across their narrow interpretations of Islam. Some women even work for the vice cops. And this is the problem. It’s not the government that oppresses women, it’s the women themselves who believe in this ideology and pass it along to their daughters. The problem lies in the imbalance of information. The ultra-conservative interpretation of Arab traditions and Islam is officially sanctioned by the government, so it is taught (actually drilled into) students through the curriculum and occasional lectures by sheikhs and women Islamic missionaries. Then outside of school they are reminded of it through the distribution of free pamphlets at social gatherings, hospital waiting rooms, and even when shopping. Sometimes street ads are paid for to show an abaya and a flower where the face is supposed to be to get across that women are flowers that should be covered and protected. Ironic, considering that flowers don’t thrive unless they are out in the sun. And if you try to discuss this oppression of women and human rights with these ultra-conservatives and their selectiveness in the use of Islamic texts, it all boils down to “the prevention of sin” argument.
At the same time people who believe in a more broad interpretation of Islamic texts are not allowed to express their opinion. When they do, they are quickly dismissed as secularists and liberals as if these were profane terms. They are also quickly assumed as not being really Saudi. I can’t count the number of times that other Saudis have assumed that I am from mixed heritage. Your mother must be Syrian, Egyptian or Turkish, they tell me. When I tell them that my parents were neighbors who grew up together in the Qaseem region, they are unfailingly shocked. All this just because I happen to voice a different opinion from the accepted walking jewels who are put on this Earth for the enjoyment of men, shopping and popping out kids. I digress. My point here is that we should have a more moderate Islam that is grown locally through Saudi literature, women rights awareness and respectable examples. Young ladies should not be made to feel guilty or rebellious just because they don’t like covering their faces or want to drive. As if wanting these means they carry some lewd ulterior motive.
Today is definitely a happy day. Saudi Arabia has made a leap of progress. King Abdullah surprised everyone yesterday morning with major overhauls to the judicial and educational system. And the biggest bombshell of all was that a woman was appointed as head of girl’s education. This is a position that has always belonged to the longest bearded most conservative muttawa possible and now to have a woman in it is FANTASTIC, notwithstanding the fact that the woman who was chosen is a moderate Muslim, educated and a highly qualified woman. She has extensive experience in girl’s education. I doubt that that they could have found anyone more qualified.
What I found most surprising and I’m sure that someone out there wanted to send a message by publishing this on the first page of Al Eqtisadiya (Saudi version of Financial Times):
If you take a closer look at the left hand corner, you’ll see a photo of Mrs. Nora Al Fayez right underneath a photo of the new head of the muttawa vice police. Her face is uncovered.
Now there’s a lot of buzz that of course she wouldn’t be this progressive unless she was a non-tribal woman, probably originating from Jordan or Palestine and she definitely is divorced because no “real” Saudi in his right mind would allow his wife to appear publicly with her face uncovered. I am very proud to say that actually she belongs to one of the biggest tribes in Saudi, Bani Tameem from Al Nawayser part of it and she is from Al Washim here in Najd. Her husband very much supports her and is proud of her.
Today in the news there was a story about a 25 year old Saudi lady called Hayat. She was caught in K0shi, India after she had run off with her driver, Abdulrahman. The couple managed to travel out of Saudi Arabia on forged passports. She told the Indian authorities that she came to India so that she could marry Abdulrahman but she’s already married to Abdulrahman’s boss here in Saudi Arabia who happens to be a much older Saudi man.
This got 627 comments which is a number not many articles get. People were so shocked and put the blame mostly on the Saudi airport for not catching her and her family for not raising her right.
What brought this to mind is that recently someone in my circle of acquaintances committed suicide. Attending the funeral, no one, not a single person used the term suicide. They would mention things that were so obvious like that the departed sat her older sister down just a few days before dying and told her that she was saying her last goodbyes and asked her to take care of a few things for her after she passes away. A couple of months before she insisted that her husband divorce her and when her family demanded to know why, she told them because he is such a great guy and she wanted him to live his life. She also cashed all her savings and gave it to her kids and then sent them to their paternal grandparents. What they would say is that Sabhan Allah, she somehow had a premonition and knew!
Growing up, we were always told that people who commit suicide would spend eternity in hell because life, even our own, does not belong to us so we have no right to snuff it out. And there was a lot of emphasis on eternal hell and that suicide is just the same as murder. Now I don’t know if the eternal hell part is based on scripture or not and I don’t feel like finding out. But I do know that there is a saying from the Quran which essentially means that we should not put ourselves in the path of destruction.
All this background rambling because at the funeral I heard the mother of the deceased and a few others repeatedly say that well at least now she’s in heaven. She always was zahida (uninterested in worldly things). Maybe they knew deep down, but they didn’t want to think that their daughter and sister was being punished for eternity.
In general, Saudi society views suicide as deeply sad but not quite shameful. It’s better to have someone in the family who committed suicide than a daughter who elopes or a son addicted to drugs. People will gossip for about a month after the funeral and then everything will be shrouded in secrecy and never talked about as if the person who died never was born in the first place.
On death certificates, you rarely have suicide written on them. The family pressures the hospital and doctors probably think what’s the point in an insensitive truth.
Saudi suicides and attempted suicides can be categorized into three types according to gender and nationality of who commits them:
- Male non Saudi workers who come here on there own leaving there families behind in poverty stricken countries. Open any newspaper and at least once a week you’ll read about a worker who hung himself in his small living quarters. And if you’re reading Al Riyadh newspaper the column will likely be accompanied by a horrific photo of the whole thing. You would have to be a rock not to understand and empathize. These men come here in hopes of a better life and only find extreme loneliness, homesickness and for the unfortunate few employers who have no intention of paying them. On top of that they are openly treated as if they were something less than human.
- Saudi men. Most suicides committed by Saudi men are financially driven. They either lose huge amounts of money on the Stock Market and throw themselves from a highway bridge or they figure out that they’ll never be able to maintain a Saudi lifestyle and hang themselves. Saudi men have a tendency for public extreme methods of ending it all. In Yanbu there’s a tower notorious for the number of men who threw themselves from it. And one time at work I remember a colleague of mine coming in the morning obviously shaken. She told us that a man wearing what Saudis traditionally wear under their thobes threw himself into the high speed traffic right in front of her.
- Saudi women commit suicide after long bouts of depression. I know that in the press people write that it is because they are forced into marriages. But in my experience of middle class Saudi I have yet to come across anything as melodramatic as a woman being forced to marry someone she doesn’t want. Not to say that that does not happen, it’s just that when it does it’s usually in the poorer parts. However when it comes to my part of the Saudi neighborhood, you can see the signs long before the end. Women who are educated cooped up in villas with no purpose in life except to be the frill and fluffy component of the family. They don’t even have to clean up after themselves and then they finish their education and there are no jobs and nothing for them to do that would light up their passion or give them purpose besides finding something to chat about with their elderly mother over tea. They fall into depression, stop attending social occasions, surrounding families start to forget what that particular daughter looks like and then a year or two later there’s a funeral.
The Saudi woman cartoon: Please insert one riyal + a letter of permission from your male guardian authenticated by a stamp from his office of employment + 2 photocopies of the family registration card + a certificate of commendable conduct authenticated by the protection of fungal life association + an aerial photo of your house that proves that there is a male guardian living with you + an x-ray of your primary teeth + your Jinn qareen’s birth certificate + the original copy of the bible + 3 feathers from the wings of a gray rooster on the condition that it’s the youngest of it’s siblings + 2 ground cloves (be careful that it’s only 2 … Once you insert the above requirements please be aware that for your OWN BENEFIT a drink will be randomly chosen for your because you could be OVERLY EMOTIONAL in your selection.
The Saudi man cartoon: please insert your riyal and select your drink.
This cartoon has been making the rounds on Email. I have recieved it twice from two different people. I don’t know where it was originally published.
The fifth of November was the deadline for applying for administrative and technical jobs at the new Princess Nora University in Riyadh. There were 218 positions available and the number of applicants was 40000 women and according to the Alwatan news channel the number was closer to 46000. So that is an average of 211 applicants per vacancy! And this is only in Riyadh, although it is the biggest city in the kingdom. Still that is a large number considering the fact that there are over 5 and a half million expatriates in the country, many of whom were brought in to do the very same kind of jobs these unfortunate women applied for. So many women looking for jobs that exist but are out of their reach because of numerous issues. Some of these issues are:
- One important problem is that expatriates are willing to do these very same jobs for a lot less and for longer hours.
- Gender also plays a major role since segregation is imposed on almost all sectors.
- The women might have the right credentials on paper but when you come right down to it they aren’t trained at all. To illustrate I will tell you of three incidents of many that I have come across. The first was concerning a newly appointed computer engineer at one of my workplaces. She was Saudi and had just graduated from a five year program from a major Saudi university. She did not know how to hook up a printer to a computer and had to have a secretary show her. Another very common issue is with the Saudi English teachers at our schools. There are so many times that I have come across quizzes and exams where I had to first correct the questions because they were so full of grammatical and spelling mistakes before I could look at how the students performed. And don’t ever bother asking a Saudi librarian for help, she’s probably just as lost as you are if not more so. Why is this? Because at many of our educational institutes, we only go through the act of teaching and not really teach and train our students for the real world. Unlike the other issues, this problem is being addressed currently and many of these institutes are going through significant changes for the better.
- We have an overwhelming epidemic of passivity. Maybe it is the heat but it is so disheartening to see the number of young men and women who are not passionate about anything. They act like old men and women at a nursing home. All they care about is their immediate comforts, living day to day in a fog of hopelessness. When I ask them why not do this or that they simply shrug their shoulders. In other countries 46000 applying for the same jobs would cause an outrage and people would take to the streets. A craze of patriotism would take over and heads of companies who do not have a substantial number of Saudis on their payrolls would see boycotts of their products…etc.
- The final problem that faces women here is mobilization. I know that many people especially Saudis say that this is only a superficial symptom and that there is no urgency in addressing it. I say otherwise. Driving and being able to get around is a major obstacle facing thousands if not millions of women all across the country. 46000 women who were able to reach the university to apply, I wonder how many sat at home begging a brother, father or husband to take them.
Princess Nora is the founder of Saudi Arabia’s sister. She was a year older than him, born in 1875. The photo above is of King Abdulazziz on the right and Prince Saud Al Kabeer (P. Nora’s husband) on the left.
She had great influence on King AbdulAzziz and historians write that she really urged him to leave Kuwait and try to get control of Riyadh. Afterwards she became one of his main advisors and he was famously known to say on several occasions “I’m Nora’s brother”. King Abdulazziz also gave his sister a role in raising his sons; whenever anyone of them did anything wrong as a child he would send them to their aunt for discipline. Dame Violet Dickson on meeting Princess Nora stated that she was one of the most important personalities of the Arabian Gulf and commented on how charismatic she was. John Philby was also impressed by the princess and commented that she was the first lady of her country.
She was known to be quite progressive and outspoken. When the telephone first came into the country many Islamic purists thought it was a tool of the devil but she supported its installation and told the people that it was an amazing device that they will not be able to live without. She was also a poet and had written several poems, the most famous of which is the one she wrote when her husband left her behind for travel. Princess Nora passed away in 1950.
A few weeks ago King Abdullah honored his aunt’s memory by naming the first university in Saudi Arabia for women only Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for Women.
This is another photo but it isn’t of Princess Nora but I still imagine it isn’t far off from what she would have dressed like. This is of Fatima Al Zamil who ruled Hail (a province north west of Riyadh) from 1911 to 1914. The photo was taken by Gertrude Bell.
This photo rescued the day for me. This morning while waiting at a stop light in the back of my car, I happened to notice that the car in front of mine had a sticker on its bumper that was a ban sign going across a woman driving. It just got to me. Isn’t it enough that we are not allowed to drive but to have someone rub our noses in it with this sort of thing! What difference does it make to that ignorant fool with a sticker if the driver in the car next to him has a female or male anatomy? And to people who say it’s a matter of freedom of speech, I say grow up. Freedom of speech has limits when it infringes on the rights of others. Would it be OK if he had an anti Muslim driving sticker? Or an anti-Arab driving sticker? Gender is on the same level as religion and race when it comes to discrimination. Anyway this photo made things better. It was taken at a big ceremony last week to mark the official opening of the Princess Nora University for Women. I don’t know who the women are but they are probably university staff. Unfortunately this was not the picture that was published in the newspapers. This was the official photo:
Nevertheless, to have the King stand in the midst of these ladies and take a photo without worrying about the muttawas is a step forward. And then to have this photo openly available online is also another step forward. So one step back (the sticker) and two steps forward still counts as progress.
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.
All across the media, the portrayal of Saudi women is always one of two facets; victimized and brainwashed or surprisingly educated and powerful. Here’s a third never before seen aspect. A bunch of Saudi girls acting just plain old silly for a laugh. These are photos that have been making the rounds in Saudi inboxes and I thought I would share them here with you. I don’t know the girls in the photos are but they are typical and could be any young ladies that I do know.