Photo: Flickr / Astrid Westvang

Getting into trouble

I stood crippled for a month at the intersection of two of the most important issues in Saudi Arabia. These two issues: women’s rights, and freedom of speech, have been the focus of debate in the public domain, and they have also provoked a flustering internal struggle within my own life.

Ironically, I found myself unable to write about feminist calls for change within the Kingdom, out of fear that I might lose my scholarship, get sent back home, or (as a friend of the family chose to put it) end up in a special detention facility for girls. I spent countless minutes on the phone with my mom, my aunts and my little sister, trying to get my frustration with the current system out of my system. I was advised to not care too much, to focus on schoolwork instead, and, for the meantime, to stay out of trouble.

When I first attempted to participate in the discussion about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, I found two prevailing arguments placed in opposition to feminist demands. The first is what I like to call the ‘all in good time’ argument. This happens when authority figures tell women to be patient. The second argument, and the one I am mainly concerned with right now, is the ‘stay out of trouble’ argument. This happens when girls are told to not bring attention to themselves, and to keep quiet for the sake of their safety, as if expressing your dissatisfaction were a justification for shame or punishment.

I am not a secretive person. I like to celebrate good ideas by discussing them. When I believe in something, I cannot shut up about it. Feminism in Saudi is an emotionally charged topic for me. I take it personally. I spend a lot of my time talking and thinking about it. I just wish I had read and wrote more about the struggles of the average Saudi girl with her everyday concerns, instead of engaging in pointless discussions over what some famous so-and-so said the other day during some interview. I am done with getting angry with women who have had the chance to speak against the oppression of their sisters, but chose not to do it for the sake of monetary gain. If we want something done right, we need to do it ourselves.

We are in desperate need for up-to-date personal stories and reflections from women in Saudi Arabia to women in Saudi Arabia and around the world. When we fail to encourage girls to participate in the conversation, we are fostering a culture that benefits from shame, abuse and patriarchal values. Our lives are filled with superficial rhetoric and divisions that have refracted our energies for far too long. When you pair that with the fear of getting in trouble for speaking up, the cycle to continues.

Whether it is easily offended relatives or the many stories of individuals behind bars for things they have said, the reasons why you may not want to participate in the conversation are plenty. I urge you to share your ideas, find an outlet that works for you, and regain your hope even if you are not comfortable with expressing yourself through writing, do not feel like your specific concerns are represented, or have lost hope all together. No fear is sufficient to outweigh the importance of our demands, which are an end to discrimination under the law, equal representation for all, and a safe space for self-expression.

When I write about feminism in Saudi in English, I am always afraid that my writing will be considered an attempt to appeal to a western audience, or worse, an attempt to embarrass my people. However, I know that is not what I am trying to do, and there are many girls like me who always seem to be forgotten about. These girls are still valid, and so are their experiences and thoughts. They deserve to be acknowledged and taken into account. There is no language barrier strong enough to keep us from our right to freely express who we are.

Get in trouble. No matter what your fears may be, it does not get any worse than this. Your feelings are valid, you have the right to speak for yourself, and you have the right to be heard. Write, draw and contribute to the literature of the movement in whatever way you can. In the meantime, you can print out our stories and shove them down the throat of anyone heartless enough to discredit our collective struggle.