To the outsider, reading about life in Saudi Arabia is hardly window enough into the difficult life of women in the country. Be it the pages of a book such as Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women, or in the twitter stream of brave girls, once we’re done reading, life moves on. To the girl on Saudi terrain, life is exactly what we read about, and continues to be so, well after their story may be forgotten in our daily lives. A girl, who goes by the twitter id @Saudi_Woman, spoke to DeltaWomen on the situation in Saudi Arabia, challenging women. No part of her identity shall be revealed in view of safeguarding her security.
You are a vociferous tweeter from Saudi Arabia. What keeps you going? What gives you the courage?
I don't think I am courageous- it is the opposite actually. I was raised with the belief that a courageous woman is rude and immoral and it goes on and on. Not to sound melodramatic, but, what really keeps me going is the simple fact that I have no other choice. We live once, and even the most peaceful human being will come to a point where she/he realizes that enough is enough and they have to do something.
What are your biggest threats? Do you fear anything?
My family. I love them and they love me but things are different here. Last time when I my twitter account was traced back to me, the authority called for me and my father. They gave him a hard time, telling him that he wasn't man enough to "leash" his daughter. And "leash" he did. Out of fear and love, of course. But it was the hardest thing.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed, the author of In the Land of Invisible Women wrote about the plight of women in Saudi, describing it as a case of abject sexism. What are your thoughts on that?
I am a big fan of Dr. Qanta and what she wrote is true, but I start seeing a different picture now, probably even worse, and one that reflects a much deeper problem than what Dr. Qanta had described. I recently read a novel by I.M. Hussaini titled The Detour, The Legendary book of Fatim. In his book, Hussaini linked between how early Muslims treated Mohammed's daughter, Fatima, and the way Saudis are treating women now. Between the critical role Fatima played and the way she died, one can reach to some sound conclusions. Although it is a novel, the facts the author had unearthed were really scary and I think Hussaini meant it as a wakeup call that in order to end women rights violations in Saudi (and other Islamic countries) we need to know the problem well or else we will just keep curing some symptoms.
When Islam does not prohibit the equality of women at all, why is it so harsh for women in reality?
There is a difference between the Islamic teachings and Muslims. The Arabic culture was (and still is) very biased against women. Maybe the best example to this was the introduction of a novel I recently read: “She grows up to be either someone’s slave or a whore. She dies, and the family's honor remains intact.” With these words, Arabs used to bury their girls before they reached puberty. Islam came in and stopped this habit. As for the mind-set… well, that's another story.
Your twitter profile says: "If you think you know about our suffering, think again." Tell us about some of these instances, please, let us be your voice to the world.
I will give you an example, but please do not take it out of context. As I said, in our family we have normal relations. Both my parents loved my brother and me fairly. But because my father considered anything he hears from the Sheikh in the mosque (the religious scholars or the religious guides) as an Islamic non-disputable order, our life became a living hell. Two months ago, the Sheikh told my father that neither he nor my brother can sit in the same room with me alone. And even if my mother is there, I had still better wear a Hijab at home in front of them. When you read this for the first time you might chuckle and laugh, thinking of how stupid this Sheikh was and how my father could do what he said. But maybe if you really think about the implication of the day-to-day hell that I am supposed to live in now, you would only pity us. If I am watching a TV show and my brother comes in to watch the same show I am watching, I have to leave the living room until my mother joins us. I am thirty for crying out loud! And because my brother is so caring, he spends most of the time out of house just to avoid "breaking the law" with me. Of course this is not what all Muslim sects believe in. Actually it is a "proprietary" of the Saudi interpretation.
Your neighbouring countries have lit and shared the spark of revolution. Will it ever be so in Saudi?
We had a tiny spark. But it died out so fast. I really don't know. I think they caught us so fast and we were not even organized. There is anger. But aside from the social media groups there is nothing solid. Maybe we need a leadership with a vision and people to unite behind it. I really don't know, but I just don't see it happening the same way it did in Egypt of Tunisia. And Islamic extremists are way out-numbering those with a brain of their own.
Manal Shariff fought back a ridiculous law that decided that women could not drive. Is it safe to conclude that women in Saudi are fighting back?
Manal is a hero. But how can we fight back? When our families (fathers and brothers and husbands and even our mothers) will be the first to stone us (metaphorically-speaking, at least for now) once we start demanding something out of the ordinary. Couple of days ago, I went to my school (where I work as a teacher and it's a girls-only school) with a new Burka where my eyes are visibile. Just a tiny little opening for my eyes as I needed to wear glasses and it was so annoying wearing the glasses under Burka. (Try it and you will know!) Imagine, my mother scowled at me once she lay her eyes on me! "You are bringing the family honor to the dirt." WTF?, I think to myself. I am a good Muslim and a good girl (so far) but God help me, one day I just wish I could go out wearing Bikini. How is that for the family honour?
There were talks of a new legal rule that women should keep their eyes covered, to avoid "seductive" looks. Is it just us, or is it that the government seems to find newer means to basically keep women underfoot?
Not only the government. I have mentioned this before. The problem is deeper. You can refer to a novel by Yusif Al-Mohaimed "Pigeons Don't Fly in Taba" or “The Detour” by I.M.Hussaini to have more insight into the situation. Both books are talking about another dimension of the organized oppression in Saudi. I have the first one as a paperback and it was one of the things that was considered as “evidence" against me a year ago. The Detour was the first novel I read on my KindleFire and I love my little device as it's perfect to hide such books.
One of your tweets, dated 14th Jan, speaks of a probable incident where your family might have caught you. Is this the harsh reality? Girls cannot trust their own families to get their back?
They are just afraid from the society and the government. They love me and they think this is for my best. Many other girls suffer from the same "love".
A recent headline says that "Princess Basma bint Saud bin Abd Al-Aziz Aal Saud Describes a Treatment of Women in Saudi Arabia as ‘Slavery’ and Says: Nobody Is Immune to a Winds of Change Sweeping a Arab Nation; ‘We Must Grant Freedoms Before They Become Challenges’". Is the government so blind to the plight of women, even when the Princess herself speaks so? If this is the princess' plight... it hurts to imagine what the real girl in Saudi would be going through...
Ah, you don't know Saudi Arabia. There are probably over 10,000 royal family members, 2,000 of them in power. All goes under the title prince and princess. Let them talk. The real influential people are the long-bearded Salafi scholars and they treat us (women) as if we were the devil himself, sometimes even worse.
Is the empowerment of Saudi Women even a possibility? What can we do to help?
I am not sure. But I think the most important thing is that you have to understand what the real problem is. With all due respect, applying the Western-culture or the free-world values on our society won't work. I wish I can live in the United States or Europe or that I was born there. But since I am not, and since I was born for a Saudi and Muslim family I think I have to play within the society's rules. There is a lot of baggage and a lot of bad heritage that we need to clear. You can help us by learning more about us, about our problems and the root of our problems. It's not easy, I know, but understanding the problem is the first step to solve them, right? Another colleague and I had bought an old copier machine and started copying books by Dr. Qanta Ahmed, I.M Hussaini and Al-Mohaimed to give them to some of our enthusiastic students. They need to realize what they are up against before signing in.
By Kirthi Gita Jayakumar