Very important Message from a Saudi Woman

For those critics who claim that life is just wonderful for all Saudi women, I thought you might want to read comments from a young Saudi woman (and mother) who is educated and highly respected and who knows what she is talking about — after all, she is living the daily life of a Saudi woman.    Jean Sasson

English version of piece published in Stern by a Saudi woman.  This was published in the new print edition of Stern magazine that was published on Thursday, 6th of October, pages 54-57.  We are giving them full credit for this article.

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In Saudi Arabia my gender decides whether or not I can enter certain ministries, what I can major in college and if I can name my own child. My gender mandates that I cannot drive my own car. No matter what age I am or how well I drive, I have to find a male to drive my car. If I were divorced, a widow or simply had a husband that was out of the country at the time, my gender dictates that I have to find a male relative to obtain a birth certificate and document my child’s name at government circles. My gender also mandates whether I can freely leave the country or not. As a woman, if I need to travel, I am at the mercy of my father and husband. At the airport I am stopped and required to show an official yellow card from the Saudi Interior Ministry that states that my husband has granted me permission to travel. If I fail to provide it, then I’m escorted out of the airport and told to go home and convince my husband. My husband can legally divorce me without reason, without my presence and without my knowledge. In public schools, from the age of twelve, girls are forced to cover their faces completely with not even a slit for their eyes as they enter and leave the strictly girls only schools. All restaurants cannot allow women in unless they have a separate entrance and area for them to sit in.

All of these rules are not only socially or culturally enforced but legally as well. So that no matter how much our society may move forward and general awareness is raised, the laws pull us back. This legal and governmental factor makes it extremely difficult for forward thinking women to demand change. If I drive my car as a woman, I am not only breaking a social taboo but also entering into a discussion of whether or not I’m breaking the law and challenging the government. This is what has led to the nine-day imprisonment of Manal Al Sharif. One of the accusations presented against her by government officials is driving a car while female within a city and inciting other women to do the same. Just last week another Saudi woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car in a city. The king soon pardoned her, but it remains a fact that a judge can do that. A member of the highest Islamic council, Sheikh Al Manea, reasons that it is justified to sentence a woman to physical punishment or imprisonment for driving a car, not because she drove the car per se but because she broke the law. These types of arguments are what makes it particularly difficult for the women rights movement in Saudi Arabia. The argument that you are not only breaking a social, cultural or even religious taboo but also going against the government and legal system can be a powerful deterrent to Saudi women who need to speak up for their rights. A few months ago, the aforementioned Manal Al Sharif, spearheaded a movement to get Saudis used to the idea of a woman behind the steering wheel. July 17th was set as the day when Saudi women would start to drive themselves to work or school rather than rely on a male driver. The purpose was that from that day and onwards more and more women would slowly gain the courage to drive. At the same time Saudi society in general would gradually get used to the sight of women driving. Unfortunately that was not how it worked out. A couple of weeks before July 17th, Manal Al Sharif was arrested. On the day itself there was a heavy police presence on all the main streets. Despite these obstacles, a few brave women drove their cars. I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of it, even though Ive never learned to drive. I got into the car with another Saudi woman, Azza Al Shmasi. As I videotaped, she drove for 15 minutes close to a main street in Riyadh. When I got home I excitedly shared the video with my followers on Twitter, as did all the women who drove that day. Then for the next few weeks, more and more women drove and uploaded videos. It seemed as though we were making progress. Unfortunately our progress was severely halted when several of the women who took part started receiving phone calls from the interior ministry and getting trial dates. I started receiving calls from the investigation unit at the Interior Ministry about a month after the last time I got into the car with Azza. In the beginning it seems as if they had made the assumption that my husband does not support me in my fight for women rights. They asked to speak to him, as though they did not have his full details right there in my file. This tactic of threatening women with informing their male guardians might have worked decades ago but Saudi society has evolved past that. The overwhelming majority of women who went out to drive have the full support of their immediate families. After two weeks of these harassing phone calls, my husband was called to the ministry. He refused to sign the pledge that he would make sure that I would not drive or upload videos of driving. The phone calls stopped. However, another Saudi woman, Najla Hariri has not been as fortunate. After her phone calls and visit to the interior ministry, she is currently awaiting a trial. Here we were, fighting for the simple and basic right to drive our own cars. So we were surprised when King Abdullah surpassed all these rights that we had been fighting for and granted women not only the vote but also the right to be nominated as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. The king also announced that women would be included in his appointed parliament. These changes are huge breakthroughs in the fight for womens rights, however they remain far in the future and have no effect on the day to day life of Saudi women today. They have however enraged many of our sheikhs. One such sheikh is Shiekh Allehiedan, another member of the Saudi highest Islamic council. He came out on TV to state that the king had not consulted with him before these announcements and that he is more protective of the country and its Sharia constitution than the king himself. Other extreme conservatives have also made a point of stating their unhappiness with these announcements. A worrying but unsurprising development; the extreme conservative have had a hold on the country from its very beginning. A partnership between the government and the mosque that is gradually growing sour because of the failure of both in reining in the peoples demands for their freedom and rights.

Many people fail to realize how relatively new Saudi Arabia is. It was not declared a country until 1932, so it is only about 80 years old. It is about 5 times the size of Germany. Our first king, King Abdulaziz, managed to unify this vast desert land despite the different cultures and even religious Islamic sects of its people. Then with the discovery of oil, led our dispersed people into building one of the more prosperous countries of the world. Unlike the majority of our neighbors we were not colonized so we did not have a western law system imposed upon us. We had to start with the tools we had at the time; Arab tribal law and religion. Starting as we did from square one in the modern world makes for some interesting challenges. Condensing hundreds of years of evolvement of national law, civilian rights and freedom in a few decades. From that perspective, it is not hard to understand how we have come to have all these modern amenities and yet live a lifestyle that is reminiscent of medieval times. As a Saudi woman, I understand all this. I also understand how exotic Saudi women are to the rest of the world. Our abayas and culture are a more subtle form of the same exoticism of the Padaung tribe where women wore neck bracelets that made them look giraffe necked. Despite how uncomfortable it looked and how much it affected their lives, it seemed to outsiders as though they were proud of their heritage and wanted to maintain it by passing it on to future generations. However when human rights organizations dug beneath the surface they found that it was face, politics and economics that were forcing this tradition on women who wanted better for themselves and their daughters. Although we don’t wear our niqabs because we need to draw tourists, we still have in common with these Burmese women that a combination of face, politics and economics have constricted our freedom and put many unnecessary obstacles in the path of our happiness. Arab traditions and culture have dictated the most extreme governmentally enforced environment of gender discrimination. So much so that these factors have resulted in the creation of the only gender apartheid in todays world. As a Saudi woman, I understand all this, yet; somehow it does not alleviate my frustration at how my country’s history has such an impact on my day-to-day life.

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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14 Responses to Very important Message from a Saudi Woman

  1. yussy says:

    what an interesting article to read.
    All i can say is you should really be proud of yourself been a saudi woman.
    Despite some restrictions!!! It’s better to be a saudi woman than any country in the world.
    If i’m a woman, i’ll prefer to be a saudi woman.

    • jeansasson says:

      Yes, I thought it was extremely interesting too, Yussy, although I am very familiar with Saudi female lives, so many people are not. It’s good to hear the reality from a very smart, educated, and extraordinary Saudi woman. I must say that I admire Saudi women very much. They are dealing with a lot of harsh restrictions and so many times, in a very intelligent manner. I hope the men there, and the government, soon grow to appreciate that their greatest asset is their women! GO SAUDI WOMEN! THE ENTIRE WORLD IS WATCHING AND ADMIRING YOU!

  2. Sara Silva says:

    I read all the princess books, and I found, once more, very interesting this article. In my european mind (portuguese), the first thing I tend to think, is how can this happen these days. But it is, in fact, quite admirable, that saudi women, like the one that wrote this article, do understand why it happens. When she refers to the path Saudi Arabia has made until now, and she concludes that they still had no time for more. And I agree. But I also think that, unfortunately, men allways had and still have desires of power over women. It was the same in Europe in the last centuries. And what about the extreme orthodox jews in Israel? An advanced country, and still the “same” mentality of power over women. It will certainly evolve for better in Saudi Arabia, as well as in other places of the world. But that will of power, I guess it will never disappear. I’m sorry if I’m too negative. I wish good changes for all of we women!

    • jeansasson says:

      Hi Sara, You know you raise a good point, Sara. While most women in the world would probably be rioting, the Saudi women are trying hard to understand the entire situation and to work their way to a good place without tearing apart the entire fabric of their very conservative society, a society that will always be conservative but hopefully will find a way to ensure the dignity and freedom for women. I believe that most men in most societies prefer to hold the power, but laws are put in place to make certain women have full legal rights. It has not been so long ago that women could not vote in America, in some parts of Switzerland, and in other countries. There’s a lot of work to be done all over the world before women are recognized as full partners in all things.

  3. Hpowellxxdta says:

    These women, gotta admire them, you know saudi women just wanna be free and be normal, and live their life, it’s a shame that simply driving a car could mean prison or lashing? It’s mad to think that this is the reality in Saudi Arabia, I hope change for the future in Saudi Arabia for women soon comes for there sake, how much more do they have to take?

    • jeansasson says:

      Change is coming for Saudi women, but oh, SO SO slowly! I believe that once the full sons of Abdul Aziz are no longer in power, and that power passes to the grandsons, many of whom are highly educated, that we will see a lot of activity in Saudi Arabia when it comes to women’s rights… Time…time will bring change…

  4. Luce says:

    Awesome!!!! Wow, I read the trilogy and have been appalled and amazed by the injustices women face. I aplaud their efforts and thank them for having the courage to stand up to their laws and lead the way for the future of other women! My thoughts anf prayers are always with these and all women and girls that the Lord protects us and bring justice to us all!

    • jeansasson says:

      Thanks, Luce. As I mentioned earlier, change is coming — sadly enough, it is not coming soon enough for a lot of young women. I just read that the Saudi government has records of 3,000 young girls (by young I mean 11 & 12 years old) married to men older than 40. There are probably thousands more the government does NOT know about, as a man’s private family is his own business in Saudi Arabia and anything goes when it comes to the females in the family. But we know what those men are, and in most societies they would be put in PRISON.

  5. Najlaa Aryan says:

    Hello Jean,
    I am a great admirer of your work. You have inspired me so much, and it’s thanks to you that I have accomplished a huge part of my project.
    I have been trying to find your email for ages, there is something significantly urgent I would like to discuss with you if you dont mind that is. Please do get in touch with me.
    Eagerly awaiting your response.

  6. Jhanak says:

    I have just finished 3rd chapter of PRINCESS. i really shocked to know that woman are treated like this in some places.

    • jeansasson says:

      Hi! Where do you live? I’m sad to say that in many parts of the world, women are treated as second-class citizens. I believe that Afghan women have the most horrible treatment of any women in the world, and that says a lot! Other countries follow, and although Saudi Arabia is improving, there are still too many heartbreaking stories about abusive treatment against young girls and women…

  7. catherine says:

    i have lived in saudi arabia for the past 16 yrs as an expat and was completely stunned to my senses and taken aback when i read a few chapters of the princess.your work is really worth admiring , but some facts and the story seems implausible ..how could such injustices take place in SUCH A RELIGIOUS ISLAMIC society..why would a PRINCESS reveal such dark deep secrets about her country to the rest of the world..why would she gamble with her own life…why would she put her family’s name in disgrace…AND WHY WOULD SHE TELL YOU SUCH INCIDENTS..i am at sixes and sevens..and what i really want to know is what were the reactions of the saudi royals when this was published to the world..the princess’ story was quite a long time ago..i really want to know is the situation still the same at this moment in tine-2012?????????

    • jeansasson says:

      Catherine, thanks for writing. I am a little stunned that you would have lived in Saudi Arabia for 16 years and not know the situation with Saudi women. It’s all around you.

      The princess and I note in the book, time and again, that religion is not the problem — it is the culture, pure and simple. A culture where all the blame for everything lies with the women. A culture where men are given all the power. And, of course, What goes on behind palace walls and villa walls is not that well known, the same way that we might think we know a friend in the USA or Europe and then discover that abuse was taking place…that happens, too.

      Sultana is one of those women who is willing to take chances — she is bold and resourceful — in the say manner that many women in the USA and EUROPE who risked all to be put in jail in the early part of the 20th century to fight for the right to vote. It is not implausible that such a woman exists. In fact, I know of more than one Saudi woman, and other Muslim women, who are fighting and risking their lives for freedom. Recently I was set to write a book about another Saudi woman, one who had tales even more horrific than the princess — a woman from a very high ranking family from one of the most conservative tribes in the Kingdom. Sadly, her family found out about the potential book and threatened that she would never see her childrean again, so I encouraged her, and she agreed, to drop the project.

      But history has proven that there is nothing that will create more determination than a true desire for freedom. As to why the princess would tell me: I do explain it in the prologue in the book(s) that I arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1978 — most of the Saudis I knew were exceedingly happy that westerners were coming into their country to help. I also was in an unusual position where I worked in that my Saudi boss was very close tot he royals. His father had been in the inner circles of the royalty for all of his son’s life — and he was very close to the king at the time and somewhat close to the crown prince. In those days it was much more open. After 9/11 everything changed. I now hear that there is little cross-friendships between Saudi royalty, or Saudi women, and expatriates into the country.

      There were many situations that arose from the Saudi royal family because of the book — two women were punished for being the princess, but they were wrong — they got the wrong women. That was tragic. (They were not killed — one was locked up for six weeks and was forced to wear a hood during the entire time — the other one fled the kingdom and now cannot go back. Two innocent women whom I did not even know…) There were other things too, but I don’t have time to go into those situations today.

      If you are still living in Saudi Arabia do you really think that things have changed to the point that these sort of things do not go on behind closed doors? Several of the best known rights organizations believe that at least80% of Saudi women are beaten routinely by their husbands. This is because men are in charge and believe themselves masters of all. What you might see if you meet with a Saudi man is very different from the way he would treat a native woman. Anyhow, I hope this answers some of your questions. For now, have a wonderful day. Jean

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