Saudi Arabia remains enigmatic to me, its historical narrative slowly revealing itself in intermittent bursts. In the second excerpt from our Writing Revolution series, Safa Al Ahmad reflects on the uprising within Saudi Arabia.
‘I’m Saudi. I’m sorry.’
Also Read: Diary of an Unfinished Revolution (Syria)
Cultural Nuances And Social Commentary
People customarily exchange this phrase during introductions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, but it’s not as common in Libya. In Bahrain, someone whispers it to me. When I entered Amal’s house in Sanaa, my friend warmly welcomed me and jokingly apologized, saying she was boycotting products from Saudi Arabia. Then she laughed and said, “But then I remembered I’d invited you over!”
Amal urged one of her friends to shed their abaya, apply makeup, and unwind after a tiring work day, encouraging them to opt for something colourful instead of all black. She enthusiastically invited them to explore her closet for vibrant alternatives.
Nabila inquired, “When will your country have its own revolution so that our government stops focusing on us?” Belqis added humorously, “Do you need us to send some of our revolutionaries over?”
Light-hearted Banter Masks Deep-seated Concerns
Despite the light-hearted tone, the words struck a chord, revealing a sensitive issue I had long grappled with. The atmosphere was initially jovial, with laughter and warm embraces exchanged between the women. However, a sombre mood descended as our attention turned to Amal’s new artwork in the majlis—a striking painting depicting a little girl and a woman draped in shrouds, symbolizing the oppression and burial of women from a young age.
“It signifies our entrapment from childhood,” Amal explained. Suddenly, a woman demanded its removal, finding it too distressing to contemplate while chewing qat. The scene was chilling, with the bland background and the ghostly figures draped in white, casting a haunting presence.
Seated comfortably on Amal’s inviting olive green cushions in her living room, we sipped milk tea while her cat purred contentedly from outside the window, observing us with satisfaction. I struggled to avoid swallowing the qat, opting to chew it instead. Conversing while chewing proved to be a skill beyond my grasp.
Our discussion ranged from the status of the Yemeni revolution to the challenges of electricity blackouts and even touched upon intimate topics like relationships. At that moment, I felt a sense of belonging. However, the question about when women would be allowed to drive was a stark reminder that I was not in my familiar surroundings.
Disparities In Women’s Rights Across Borders
Despite being one of the least affluent nations in the region, Yemen surpasses Saudi Arabia in terms of women’s rights and civil society. Saudis frequently view Yemenis with disdain, considering them inferior. Amidst a gathering of insightful, courageous, and self-reliant Yemeni women engaged in discussions about an ongoing revolution that successfully ousted their dictator, it became glaringly apparent that they were light-years ahead of us in terms of progress.
While the Arab world united in a widespread uprising for freedom and dignity, my compatriots settled for mere concessions, skirting around the fundamental systemic issues plaguing our kingdom.
Our demand is clear: the release of political prisoners. Instead of receiving justice, authorities respond with violence and torture, and, especially within the Eastern Province Shia community, they shut down mosques and Husayniyya, as well as perpetrate disappearances and imprison hundreds merely for seeking answers about their missing loved ones.
Unfulfilled Demands And Token Gestures
Our demand is simple: the right for women to drive. However, instead of progress, we face imprisonment, lashings, and patriarchal pardons. Afterwards, in what seemed like an attempt to placate us, Saudi women were cautiously given a chance to vote and stand for positions in municipal councils and the predominantly symbolic Shura Council. But is this enough? Additionally, we were offered the chance to work in lingerie shops. It’s a meagre offering disguised as progress.
The populace becomes incensed over trivial concessions, akin to making mountains out of molehills. Sectarian and gender-related controversies serve as convenient distractions orchestrated by the Saudi Arabian government. The government’s intended lesson for its citizens amidst these minor disputes is clear: it will not tolerate dissent, even in the form of a simple tweet, and those who dare to speak out will face severe consequences.
Istanbul, September 2012
Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi journalist working independently in the Middle East, has experience in both print and television journalism for prominent regional channels. She was recognized as a finalist for the 2012 Rory Peck Awards for her freelance reporting. She began her career covering the second intifada in Palestine before extending her coverage to Lebanon, Bahrain, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, and various other locations.