In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.” Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.
Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.
I never thought much about my gender identity until I moved back to Saudi Arabia as a young adult. Small instances of gender discrimination would take place regularly, but at some point in time those experiences built up to leave me feeling something I had never felt before: that being female is an absolutely exhausting burden to bear.
What exactly were these small everyday events that pushed me over the edge?
Perhaps it was the time I was lost in Riyadh and asked a man who passed me on the street for help with directions, and he looked at me in disgust, replied with a “tisk tisk” and an “astughfurallah” (a phrase often muttered when someone finds something sinful), and continued walking. He did not want to speak to a woman.
Or perhaps it was one of the many instances while flying domestically with Saudi Arabian Airlines, when the stewardess would come to me in my assigned seat during boarding and tell me to move because there was a man in the assigned seat next to me who did not want to sit next to a woman.
Perhaps it was the muttawa (“religious” man) who was screaming at me from across the room in an airport to cover my face and fear the end of the world that pushed me over the edge. Or maybe it was the man who witnessed this indignity and followed me when I went to complain to airport authorities in order to tell me to “calm down and not make a big deal out of it.”
Perhaps it was the countless men who assumed that since I was out in public on my own I clearly was asking to be sexually harassed. Or the young men who shamelessly threw their phone numbers at me, or followed me in their cars for long-periods of time despite my obvious lack of interest. Or maybe it was the numerous times when these sexual-harassment car-chases became reckless and almost ended in accidents.
Perhaps it was during the two-hour argument I had with the sheikh who was performing my marriage ceremony. My husband and I had already agreed to put conditions in the marriage contract so that he could not take any other wives besides me. Right before my eyes, the sheikh tried his best to convince my husband this was not a good idea, and he should leave himself the option of entering into other marriages. Or perhaps it was after acquiescing and including the condition in our marriage contract, that instead of giving us his best wishes, the sheikh expressed doubt about the future success of our marriage.
Maybe it was the man who was showing my husband and I a house for sale in Riyadh, who thought it was funny to make a joke right in front of me about my husband getting another wife. Or maybe it was that while showing us the kitchen he told my husband “how nice I would look cooking” there.
Perhaps it was the man who was smoking a cigarette in Jeddah, who came over to me as I lit up my own cigarette, took it from my hands, and threw it on the ground, telling me that women’s bodies could not handle smoking the way men’s bodies could.
Maybe it is the fact I am prohibited from driving a car because of my gender, despite having a valid license for over 11 years without an accident or even a ticket with experience driving in the rain, in the snow, in the desert, in extreme fog, and in multiple countries – even here in Saudi.
Perhaps it is the hours of my life that have been casually wasted away while waiting for a man to give me a ride somewhere.
It could also be the fact I have gotten more unwanted attention in Saudi while covering my head and entire body with an abaya, than I ever received while wearing a bikini in many Western countries.
Maybe it was the work meetings I was left out of about my future career at the university in Al-Khobar while the male administrators (who had never met or worked with me) were left to make decisions about my job without giving me a chance to speak to them or present my case.
These are just a few of the things that have happened nearly every time I step out of my house and into the streets of Saudi Arabia. The days I return home without being disrespected because of my gender are beautiful but extremely rare. Over time, these experiences have made it more and more difficult for me to step out of the comfort of my own home, even though as my true self, I cannot bear staying inside.
For a while, I had the courage to push back against all this, but for now, I must shamefully admit, I have been defeated.