Female Protesters in Saudi Arabia

With the eyes of the world turned to Egypt and Mubarak’s resignation, few people heard about a rare protest that occurred on February 5, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Most stunning, the protesters were all female! As a rule, Arab men are the ones to lead protests, rarely allowing women to participate.

But forty Saudi women broke tradition last week and protested outside the Interior Ministry, waving posters, “God, free our prisoners” and demanding the release of male relatives who have been held in prison over a year without representation and trial. The Saudi government claims that the men are Al-Qaeda members, but how will anyone know the truth if the men are not allowed public trials?

The women’s protest was an unusual sign of discontent in a country not accustomed to public dissent. Their protest brought to mind the first of such protests during the first Gulf War, when women picked up the keys to their husband’s automobiles and drove through the streets of Riyadh, calling for the right to drive. (The sight of Kuwaiti women driving triggered Saudi women to question the restriction on female drivers in their own country.) Those brave women were harassed, fired from their jobs, and forced to go into hiding by religious clerics calling for their deaths. It is believed that one woman was even put to death by her own father.

This leads me to wonder what will happen to the current protesters in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, the Saudi government and religious clerics were most incensed by the fact that the women traveled from surrounding villages into the capital without male guardians. When it comes to women, nothing is more important to Saudi officials than to keep them quietly under the “protection” of male family members.

(Here I am in Saudi Arabia with a Kuwaiti baby.)

During the twelve years I lived in Saudi Arabia, Saudi men have assured me that their women want to veil, have no interest in driving, and have no desire to participate in life outside the home. When I begged to differ, the men claimed to be protecting their women, and told me in sorrowful voices how tragic it was that I did not have a man to protect me, but instead, had to work outside the home to support myself.

Certainly, most Saudi women do not want the kind of freedom that western women enjoy. They live in an ultra-conservative society and would not feel comfortable traveling alone or making a life without the support of their families.  Marriage and children are still one of the most important goals in a Saudi woman’s life. Nothing about my life startled Saudi friends more than hearing that I had made a personal choice not to have children. The concept of any woman not wanting children was beyond their realm of understanding.

Rather than drastic revolution, most Saudi women expressed their desires for simple change, such as the right to obtain an education, work in a field of their choice, and choose their own husband. Saudi women rarely voice one of the biggest problems in their society–the routine beating of a wife by her husband–but they are starting to call for Saudi authorities to become more involved in marital violence. Generally such violence is ignored, left to the discretion of the husband. The statistics are unknown because no one cares.

While I’ve been impressed with King Abdullah, who has bravely stood for change for Saudi women, I’ve also been told that even the king is limited in what he can do. The religious clerics are still a strong force in the kingdom, and they protest against any lifting of restrictions on female lives. Additionally, there are ultra-conservative forces within the royal family, and they do not support King Abdullah when it comes to lessening restrictions on women.

With the resignation of Mubarak, the world is closely watching the democratic process in Egypt. My hope is that during this exciting time, the world will not forget the women of Saudi Arabia, brave and strong women who also need the eyes of the world on their progress.

About jeansasson

I'm a woman with a keen interest in a wide range of topics including women's issues; animal rights issues; humanitarian issues and political movements, such as the events currently sweeping the Middle East. I am an avid reader and collector of books, mainly about travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries. I have enormous curiosity about other people and relish hearing about lives and opinions of people from all over the world. I’m the author of the PRINCESS series, GROWING UP BIN LADEN, MAYADA DAUGHTER OF IRAQ, FOR THE LOVE OF A SON, and more. Over the past two years the princess and I have met and worked together to bring out a 4th and a 5th book in the PRINCESS SERIES. The 4th is titled: PRINCESS, MORE TEARS TO CRY while the 5th, which was recently released, is titled: PRINCESS, SECRETS TO SHARE. I am currently working on my 14th book. Details to be released soon. You can visit my website (http://www.jeansasson.com/) or check out my books on Amazon for more info.
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19 Responses to Female Protesters in Saudi Arabia

  1. Cara says:

    Beautifully written and beautiful sentiments, Jean! The recent events in Egypt prove that if people bravely stand up to their government, change can happen. But of course in a country like Saudi Arabia if the men will not support their women, I don’t see the women being able to bring about the changes they want on their own😦

    • Jean Sasson says:

      Hi Cara! Thanks much. Yes, unfortunately it is up to women to convince men that women’s issues are one of the most important matters in our world. Without women, where would men be? Come on guys, make women’s rights WORLDWIDE one of your pet projects!

  2. Jude says:

    Informative post! You’re right–I didn’t hear about the protest in Saudi Arabia at all. Thanks for keeping us updated even when much of the media has been silent about this!

    • Jean Sasson says:

      Jude, you are right — the western media pretty much ignored the protest. I think the Egyptian news had them all totally occupied! But, for Saudi women to protest is most news worthy! After living in Saudi for 12 years, I know the courage it takes to speak out…

  3. hannahbowman says:

    This is so interesting, and sad (but also hopeful). I think it’s fascinating to see how different cultures change what women want so much–changing cultures is a hard problem. I hope the protesters aren’t harmed, and that their protest is effective!

    • jeansasson says:

      Seems they got beat back, but now another woman has called for the right to drive, even though she was arrested and her child was taken from her. ALL SAUDI WOMEN AND ALL SAUDI MEN SHOULD SAY ENOUGH!

  4. JT Heaton says:

    Jean great piece. Although Saudi has changed since you lived there. The internet has brought out a new generation who have grown up with seeing and knowing what they are in fact missing out on in life in terms of freedoms. There are also hundreds of thousands of Saudi girls and boys who study abroad every year, and find life near impossible when they return ‘home’ to Saudi Arabia. They want change. They want more than to have ‘babies’. They want human rights, gay rights, and full equality.

    Do ‘most’ want only subtle change? I don’t think so. I have female friends who do drive there and have for years. They put on a mans clothing, the cap and go out.
    They can’t wait till the rest of the uneducated religious fanatics catch up, and how will they ever if they are not given full freedom to develop their minds and souls. The world is developing at a rapid rate. Holding people back in the dark is cruel and saying ‘that is what they want’ is the excuse used by the repressive rulers.

    • Jean Sasson says:

      Yes, JT, I believe you. In fact, I have been back to Saudi several times over the past few years but visited with the royals; therefore, my visits were very quiet and I could only silently observe. I was amazed by the changes and by the attitude of the women, who were totally silent when I lived there (other than a very few outspoken women.) HOWEVER, having said this, there are still many Saudi women who have no one to turn to, and many Saudi women who are still cruelly mistreated by the men in their families. Even the television commentator who was nearly beaten to death by her jealous husband ended having to flee the country without her children. Change comes very slowly in Saudi, but I agree with you that change WILL come. With every heartbreaking story, I want change to come NOW and to save that particular women!

  5. Meredith says:

    Thanks for your insight, Jean!

  6. This is such a great post! I have a friend from Kazakhstan and I was amazed to hear how hard it was for her to leave home and go to college, just because she was a woman. And when she wanted to have a career rather than get married and have children right out of school, her family and friends were all upset at how the US had changed her.

    • jeansasson says:

      I’m not surprised one bit. I have heard many such tales. It is almost impossible to bring the family to the realization that it elevates the entire family when a woman is educated and has the support of her family.

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  8. Maryam t says:

    Dear Jean,
    We hear no evil, we see no evil.peple are affraid to protest in Saudi.If they do. They will vanish.

  9. jeansasson says:

    Maryam, you are right. Yet, this change is coming. It will take sacrifice from many brave women, and hopefully, some brave men will intervene…..

  10. Nouf says:

    I am a Saudi woman,living in Saudi Arabia.
    We’re not living on a different planet here,I have no idea why people look at Saudi Arabia as if it is another planet where men have absolute control over women. The problem is you have been in Saudi Arabia and you’re still judging us.
    Saudi women have so little things to worry about unlike women in other countries.
    We have our own drivers,why would we want to drive when most of us-women-in the kingdom have the luxury of having a driver?!
    We don’t have to worry about paying bills or even paying for our own clothes for that matter. Men in Saudi Arabia are obligated by religion/law to pay for their wives’ and daughters’ every need.
    You wrote:”the routine beating of a wife by her husband” Wow..Really?!
    First of all,abused women here are only a minority just like anywhere else in the world.
    Second of all,are you trying to say that women all around the world aren’t being abused by their husbands and abusive men are only found in Saudi Arabia?
    No woman was murdered by her husband in the US nor in Europe? No woman was beaten and humiliated by her husband anywhere else in the world? I assure you that we are aware that it isn’t an okay thing..! We know..! We don’t accept it..! I don’t think you understand that.
    I don’t believe that anyone has ever found a Saudi blogging about how the US prisons are filled with men who committed crimes against their girlfriends,wives..etc. Or blogging about how women in the US and other parts of the world endure insults from men on their line of work..etc. Or how many times women were raped by their uncles,fathers neighbors in the US and other parts of the world,so why should you write one about the little minority of women here who have these troubles? What gives you the right? It’s like every time people talk about Saudi Arabia,they talk about their women. It isn’t your business!
    Please,stop painting a bad picture of the life we live here. We can manage ourselves just right and we don’t need anyone to intervene.

  11. Jean Sasson says:

    Dear Nouf, It’s lovely to hear from a woman in Saudi Arabia, although it is clear to me that you have not followed my writings. If so, you would know that I am highly critical of the situation of women’s rights issues all over the world, including the USA, in Asia, and in any country where women do not have full rights to live in dignity. I’m not picking on Saudi Arabia by any stretch of the imagination.. I have quoted stories and my dismay over the fact of how women in the west are at greatest danger from men when they are pregnant. Yes, I lived in Riyadh for 12 years, and yes, I have a number of Saudi female friends. I’m sad that you think because Saudi women do not have to pay for their clothes or are taken care of by men, that everyone should think all is well in the kingdom. If you will do a little research, and further reading, you will see that there is a great deal of discussion in Saudi newspapers published in the kingdom discussing the issues relating to women, and that the time for change is now. If you look around, you’ll see Saudi women themselves making protests about not being able to drive. While I understand what you mean about it is easier to have a driver (as I had one the entire 12 years I was in Saudi) the fact is that many women cannot afford a driver, and they are left stranded and unable to get to work or to do their shopping or to take their children to school. While you are certainly entitled to your opinion that life is perfect for women in Saudi Arabia, very few of your countrywomen seem to agree with you. Although under King Abdullah the situation is improving, there is still much to be done. And, while your life might be perfect in every way, that is not the way it is for many other women. Here is my motto about any issue to do with humanity: If any man or woman or child or animal is in anguish or pain about a situation, then it is not only my business, it is my OBLIGATION to do all that I can to help the situation. I would think that you would feel the same way. I would think that you would be pleased and happy that people in the world care about women in your country, or in any other country for that matter. Perhaps you only care for yourself? If that is the case, then I understand why you would take offense when anyone takes up for a woman in your society. I had members of the Saudi royal family (males) to telephone me and my ex-husband after I wrote Princess Sultana’s story (at her request) and we were told: “We thought Jean loved Saudi Arabia and cared about us, but why this criticism?” My reply was always that I DO love Saudi Arabia, and I loved my time there, and the people I met, who were always so very kind and welcoming to me, but so long as women are treated as second-class citizens (as they surely are) then then I will be taking up for 50% of your citizens and I would think you would be very happy about it. So long as Saudi Arabia does not work to eliminate the problems faced by so many women, there is a dark cloud hanging over the kingdom.” My actions regarding women of the world are done with a good heart and with care. Please join me and other women in trying to make certain that all Saudi women are as contented and happy as you are. To do this, there must be ensured freedoms for all women, to make choices. If a woman chooses to stay home and enjoy her husband taking total care of her, then that is wonderful. BUT, if not, then she needs to have the rights to follow her own happiness, which well might mean driving a care to work and not covering her face, etc. I look forward to hearing further from you on these points. Please allow me to wish you a wonderful day and I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Warm regards, Jean Sasson

  12. Nouf says:

    Thanks for your kindness.
    Well,since I am a Saudi woman,I know of the events that are happening here,you needn’t tell me about them.I’ve lived here all my life.
    The thing I’m trying to make clear is that I’m not perfect nor am I living a prefect life,but I am happy to be in Saudi Arabia,I’m aware of the things that need to be improved but still,I and many Saudi women wouldn’t give the life we live here for anything. After all,things here are easier and I never find anyone speaking of Saudi Arabia mentioning the positives,only the negatives everywhere I look.
    The last thing we want here is the kind of freedom that would produce even more problems and immoralities.We are a Muslim country, meaning we go by the rules of Islam which means women wear modest,decent,conservative clothes. I haven’t seen many people interfering with France’s decisions to prevent Muslim women to wear veils in France. Or is it okay as long as it’s France and not the enigmatic Saudi Arabia?!
    As the constitution of Saudi Arabia,Islam does not allow a man to abuse a woman,so the people doing that here are considered sinners. Actually,Muslims are encouraged not to hurt an ant let along a human being.
    Anyways,I can’t believe you would consider the fact that I’m defending my country as being selfish. I am sick and tired of western people painting the Saudi woman as a little,broken,powerless creature,the Saudi man as a tyrant beast and the whole Saudi community as an uneducated,dumb followers who don’t have an opinion of their own. How would you feel if that was said about you and your community?! Fact is,the more I read articles and comments like these,the more I feel right at home,’Cause I know how it is here and I know that people who aren’t Saudi judge us so harshly only because they don’t understand. Just because we’re different doesn’t mean we need to be fixed.
    As any country,Saudi Arabia has its positives and negatives. And it would be much appreciated if anyone who spoke of abused women in Saudi Arabia would mention the fact that it’s a MINORITY and absolutely not the majority.
    I think it’s only fair that after your 12-year-stay in the kingdom,your report to the world of what you saw here would include both good and bad.
    And when it comes to our rights as women,it is reserved.

  13. Jean Sasson says:

    Dear Nouf, As I said earlier, it is obvious you have not read very much I have written. I’ve often written that some of the bravest and strongest women I ever met were Saudi women. I still believe that… It takes a special kind of courage to quietly work through customs of a culture (that often have nothing to do with Islam) rather than to demand and argue… And, when I wrote the PRINCESS books, I was telling the life of Princess Sultana as she had lived it and experienced it. She always knew that I had a totally different experience as a non-native woman. In fact, I was extremely happy living in Saudi Arabia — I would not have chosen to live there 12 years otherwise. I never had a bad experience, and few people living in ANY country can say that! In fact, when I write my life story, most will be surprised when I describe the lovely experiences I had. Unfortunately, the princess’ story was not so wonderful as she had a very cruel father and one particularly cruel brother who made her life a living hell. As far as various issues discussed these days, including the face veil and the fact that women cannot drive, I do realize that there are many more important issues that should be addressed. I’ve often said (in interviews) that Saudi women do not long for the life lived by many western women, that it would not suit them nor their culture. My belief is that so long as a woman is happy in her situation, it is no one else’s business. But when a woman is unhappy, and is being harmed, it is EVERYONE’s business, whether she is a Saudi woman or an American woman.

    I worked at the royal hospital in Riyadh and while what you say is right, that it is a sin in Islam for a man to mistreat a woman, human nature being what it is, there are many men in Saudi Arabia who do mistreat their wives and/or daughters. There were some terrible situations when husbands were angry at their wives for giving birth to daughters rather than sons, and we had many female patients admitted because they had been beaten within an inch of their lives by their husbands. Yes, this happens ALL over the world, including the USA. The only difference is that I found many Saudi women had nowhere to turn, that generally her family would say, “What did you do to upset him!” (Rather than condemn the man for beating his wife.)

    This being said, I knew many wonderful Saudi men who were totally kind to their wives and daughters.

    Anyhow, nothing I have ever said was meant as an insult to any Saudi woman. If you knew me personally, you would know this to be the case. And, yes, I agree that anyone has the right to defend their country and their culture. I am often very embarrassed about situations in the USA where “nothing is ever done until it is overdone!” I am not happy over the attitude here that anything goes for our young people. Although there are many conservative Americans, one would not know it watching the news or viewing movies.

    I believe that I had an easy time of it in Saudi Arabia because I grew up in a very conservative part of the USA. The American south, which is called “the bible belt,” because it is very Christian conservative. In fact, my Saudi friends were astonished that I had never tasted alcohol, never smoked, and was a child so close to my mother that I called her day that I lived in the kingdom! I used to go to Monte Carlo in the summertime with some of the royal princesses and they got quite upset with me that I wouldn’t go anywhere there was alcohol served! (smile)… My point is this: In their view, all American women had very loose morals, which of course is NOT the case, but after years of watching Hollywood and hearing US news when in the states, it was not surprising that they thought that about my country. So, this is a problem we all have.

    ANYHOW, I am very pleased that you have written and I will never again write anything about Saudi Arabia without considering your points and reminding myself of all the truly nice Saudis I came to know, men and women…

    I hope to hear from you again.

    With very kind regards, Jean

  14. Nouf says:

    I do appreciate your kind words and your effort to explain and I respect your accomplishments.
    There is actually an organization in Saudi Arabia called The Charitable Society for Family Protection that specializes in child and women protection against domestic violence. Some of their goals is to provide financial and moral support needed to overcome domestic violence as well as offer a rehabilitation program for abusive men (abusive to the child or the woman) and many other goals. So yes,there is a place for abused women here,a place where they can get protection.
    In anyway,I’m only trying to explain things here,you have to understand that this is my home and it hurts me to see others talking so inconsiderately about it-like some of the comments here.
    It’s so easy to judge other people but it isn’t exactly fair.
    I understand that you’re a women’s rights activist,so you know exactly the number of women here who are being abused,and you know how small it is compared to the whole population of Saudi women. So,again,I would love it if you would make it clear that it is minority when writing about abused women in Saudi Arabia. After all,it’s the truth.

    Thanks for your time.

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