‘Saudi Arabia is a mystery to me. Its history grudgingly unfolds in fits.’ In the second of our Writing Revolution extracts, Safa Al Ahmad contemplates the protest movement in Saudi Arabia.
‘I’m Saudi. I’m sorry.’
It’s a phrase uttered at every introduction in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, not so much in Libya. Whisper it to myself in Bahrain. As I walked into Amal’s house in Sanaa, my friend greeted me warmly and apologetically declared she was boycotting Saudi products. She burst out laughing: ‘Then I remembered I’d invited you over!’
The other guests were taking off their abayas, putting on make-up and relaxing after their long workday. ‘Why are you wearing all black? Go put on something colourful!’ Amal demanded of one of her friends. ‘Look in my closet!’
‘When will you have your own revolution so your government forgets about us?’ asked Nabila. ‘Do you need us to export some of our revolutionaries?’ joked Belqis.
Although said light-heartedly, the words dealt a heavy blow, hitting a raw nerve I have been nursing for a while. The women were jovial, laughing loudly and greeting each other with hugs and kisses. Then we all went quiet and stared at Amal’s newly acquired piece of art hanging on the wall of her majlis: a large painting of a little girl and a woman sitting sideways, each covered in a shroud. ‘It means we are buried alive from childhood,’ she said. ‘Take it down!’ shouted the women, ‘It’s too depressing to look at while chewing qat.’ It was chilling: a bland light blue background and the two females covered in white, like ghosts.
We sat on low cushions in Amal’s welcoming olive green living room, drinking milk tea, her cat purring from outside the window as it peered at us contently. I was trying not to swallow the qat, and just chew it instead. Holding a conversation while chewing is a talent I don’t possess. We talked about the state of the Yemeni revolution, electricity blackouts, sex or lack thereof. I felt at home. Then another question hit me: ‘So when will they allow women to drive?’ A reminder, I was not at home.
Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, is ahead of Saudi Arabia when it comes to women’s rights and civil society. Saudis often look down on Yemenis, see them as inferior. Sitting in a room full of intelligent, brave and independent Yemeni women talking about revolution, a real one happening on the streets, which ultimately toppled their dictator, it was evident they were decades ahead of us.
The entire Arab world was engaged in a collective uprising for its freedom and dignity and my countrymen and women were begging for scraps. Dancing around the edges of systemic problems facing the kingdom.
What do we want? Free political prisoners. What do we get? Killing, torture and, in the case of the Shia of the Eastern Province, shutting down mosques and Hussainiyas, disappearances and hundreds more put in prison for daring to ask what happened to their brethren.
What do we want? Women to drive. What do we get? Prison sentences and lashes, followed by patriarchal pardons. Then with a stroke of the royal pen, Saudi women were (maybe) to be given the right to run and vote for powerless municipalities, and the honour to be in the powerless advisory body, the Shura Council. Not enough? You may also work in lingerie shops. Rejoice!
People riled up over the crumbs that fall from the table. Storms in teacups. Nothing like sectarian and gender issues to get people distracted in Saudi Arabia. Off with their heads! This is the government’s message to all those who dare to speak out; even if they only tweet. This is the lesson the government wants its citizens to learn from these minor skirmishes.
Istanbul, September 2012 ■
Safa Al Ahmad is a Saudi freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She has worked both in print and for TV, for major channels in the region, and was a finalist for the 2012 Rory Peck awards for freelance journalism. With the start of the second intifada she travelled to Palestine, then on to Lebanon, Bahrain, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya, among others.
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Image courtesy of Eylul Aslan.