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Oct 26th 2013 : Subversive Dangerous Element Behind the Wheel – Part 2

On June 17th 2011, I had the honor and privilege of being among the courageous women who drove on the streets of Saudi to defy the ban on female driving. As a result, my brother, who was accompanying me, got a ticket for allowing an “unqualified person” to drive the vehicle. Funny enough, the car was not even registered under his name. We both signed pledges that I would not drive again.  (https://riemism.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/a-subversive-dangerous-element-behind-the-wheel/)

Over two year later, a new campaign was born. This time, the target date is Oct 26th 2013.

Of course I would jump at the opportunity and join the cause but, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this would happen. Both my brother and father will be out of the country at the time. Also my previous pledge and the fact that I’ll have to drive a car not registered under my name makes me reluctant. This is because of the likelihood that I would need my male guardian to bail me out. Otherwise I might have the pleasure of starting my own Orange is the New Black memoir.

And this reason is precisely why this campaign is important. It serves as a reminder of the patriarch society we live in.

Needing a male guardian to bail an adult independent woman illustrates just how much women in Saudi Arabia are pretty much slaves to their masters (their male guardians).

Not being able to drive is just another reminder how my male guardian or any man – as a matter of fact- has the upper hand in when I can leave the house and where I can go. Whether it’s a male relative, a private driver or taxi drivers who takes me places, I am always under the mercy of a man controlling when and where I go. Reaching my destination is governed by whoever is driving the vehicle.

Lifting the invisible ban on driving is important because by wanting more, we risk having our loyalty and allegiance to this country and Islam questioned. Another funny thing is that many of those accusers are not even eligible for the citizen of the year award. They speak on behalf of religion and their actions are furthest from its teachings.

For now I have decided NOT to drive on Oct 26th. However, I choose to participate by sitting in the back seat of a car that has a print of the Oct26th logo on it. You too can help. Organizers of Oct 26th campaign have put a list of ways you can help support women driving. ( http://www.oct26driving.com)

Given my track record, my decisions are not always final and subject to change.

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A Subversive Dangerous Element Behind the Wheel

Sunday 19 June

Possibly, one of the hardest things to write about is our emotions…

I have been working on this post since Friday night… There were many attempts. That’s all they were. But maybe with each attempt, I am getting closer to a truth… every attempt ends up with feelings of fakeness and distance.  I was too busy writing what happened with no attachments, whereas moments like these are filled with complex feelings we sometimes tend to ignore.

The story seems simple. Friday at 6 PM, I sat in front of the steering wheel, my brother was in the passenger seat, and I started driving in one of Jeddah’s main roads.  About ten minutes later, a very angry fellow spotted me, called the police, and followed us until we came across a police car. He honked like crazy to get the police’s attention, and we were pulled over. The police was already busy with another car he had pulled over, but I guess pulling us over was much more important and interesting than a speeding maniac.  My brother got a ticket for allowing an “unqualified person” to drive the vehicle and signed a statement that he would not allow me to drive again. I signed a statement that I would never drive a car again. Then, we went home.

But in reality there is more to the story… Our emotional connection with the event is deeper  than the experience itself.

Friday seems so far away. Did it really happen? Is today just another day that has no relevance to yesterday? Truth be told, the male push I received on Friday had a profound influence on my decision to drive.

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I have been receiving many cheers since Friday night. One colleague refers to me as “Riem Schumacher”, and to another as “Riem morror –  Traffic “. But a number of others asked me why I chose to drive? Was it an act to defy the government? Was I challenging authority? Those two questions make me feel like I am some anti-government revolutionary. Whereas I am far from that.

One man asked me, “Why didn’t you wait for a decree or law to come out? Didn’t you know you would get caught?” I would have answered, “Well, don’t you know that purchasing drugs and alcohol is illegal?  I hear you are a consumer. Is that true? So, why are you buying them if it’s against the law?” but I didn’t. Instead, I opted for:  “Yes, I know, but it was worth it and what’s the point of a Saudi female driving if it’s not documented?” 🙂

How is my act of “disobedience” different from all those that break the law on a daily bases? Is it because I got caught? Or because I asked for what is seen as a request for emancipation and libration?

Would he understand how it feels like to be considered unqualified to drive simply because of my gender?  Even though I carry an American driver’s license with a clean record.

Would he understand that a 12 year old baby boy is more “qualified” than a 34 year old female to drive a vehicle?  Who am I kidding? He probably trusts his 12 year old more than he trusts his wife or mother.

How would he like it if he had to give up driving by force, and is subsequently under the mercy of a driver, whose salary he pays. How long would he tolerate being yelled at or even sexually harassed by the driver?  He might just answer “May God help us all” and walk away.

One 17 year old has been driving for over two and half years without carrying a Saudi license. Every time he was pulled over, the police gave him a ticket. A few months ago, he owed around 8,000 riyals in fines. How come no one gave his father a ticket for allowing an unqualified person to drive the vehicle?

——————–

Dear Mr. Angry Guy,

Why the outrage?

Hasn’t anyone told you that reckless driving is not safe? Why didn’t you get a ticket for endangering the lives of others? Haven’t you heard that using the phone while driving is against the law? But in your defense, this was an emergency, and you had to call the police. You were confronted with one of “devil’s helpers” and needed backup.

Has my act of driving threatened your mere existence that you had to go out of your way to make sure we were stopped?

When you saw me driving, did you feel like a knight and shining armor? Protector of religion and morals? And that my brother and I were two infidels you had to remove from the road? Where your wife and children screaming and shearing you: “Go get her!!!” I bet you felt like a hero when you told your friends about your adventure with one of those “damn” female drivers.  Have you asked your wife what she wanted? Or is not important because she is just a helpless woman in need of a man to take care of her. Maybe your wife just wanted to get to her destination without any delays, and all in one piece. Maybe she secretly wished she could push you out of the car and take hold of the steering wheel.

Dear Mr. Angry Guy,

Why are you so scared of me?

I am just a bitter female

———————————-

The moment I held the steering wheel, I felt a sense of reminiscence. I was sitting in front of the wheel, just like I did hundreds of times in LA, only this time I was feeling insignificant and scared inside. At first, I felt like a criminal. My heart was beating fast. The responsible driver in me told me to stop driving if I was going to be shaking and shivering. Another part, the socially responsible, advised me that this had to be done. Otherwise I’d be the hypocrite who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. How many Saudi women wish they were in my shoes, but due to circumstances can’t join the drive?

At that moment I had an obligation.

There are moments in life that define us. For me, this was one of those moments.

All my moments wasted on fear, in the last few years, somehow seized to exist on Friday afternoon.  This was one moment that would set part of me free!!

I chose to drive because I could, and had a choice.

I chose to drive and get caught because it would serve as a shocker to those who believe women can’t drive because it never happened…

I chose to drive, even though some consider it breaking the law. So, I will now gladly pay the fine and hang my medal of honor “the ticket and statement” to remind me every day that I defied, not the government, but those who decided to corner me because of my gender.

Will female driving in Saudi Arabia ever be a norm? I don’t know!

But I know that Friday was a wonderful day. Many times, we are taught that men hold us down. Some even radically consider them the enemy, but on Friday, the biggest push I’ve ever received on driving was by men. My brother supported my driving.  So did a good friend. There were also men on the street who sheered and saluted me when they saw me drive.

It’s not that we women need men’s recognition, but having  male support gives hope in a better tomorrow. … It gives hope that many men are choosing to side by women and demand women’s voices be heard.

Ps: Many thanks to my wonderful editor, who couldn’t join the drive, but was a ” dangerous element”  in my choice to drive…

Saudi’s Human Pink Ribbon

On Thursday, I woke up with a sense of pride. I was going to be part of an awareness event in Saudi Arabia. The biggest by far, not just in Saudi but the world.  It was a Breast Cancer awareness day and Saudi Arabia was organizing the biggest yet human pink ribbon. It didn’t really matter to me that we might break a record; I just wanted to believe that I am participating in a greater cause. Ok, it also felt good to be part of a new record while am at it.

A few months ago my uncle died of cancer, his brother years before him, and a distant relative died of breast cancer before that, and two years ago a very close friend was diagnosed with cancer.  Every day now, we hear of celebrities we admire battle cancer. When I was younger, I was told that breast cancer is a punishment from God brought on women who displayed their beauty on-screen or did bad things. I admit that for a while I believed it. (Don’t judge, I was about 6 at that time =) ). Cancer has now become a personal fight for every female and male.  I would like to believe that if I am ever diagnosed with cancer, that medicine would have reached a point where it could fight it. This is why I went to the event.  I found nothing of that and felt extremely left out.

So what went wrong at the event? Or rather why was I disappointed?

In my college years, I once participated in the AIDS walk and helped organize a number of very successful awareness and fundraiser events. To this, I have gotten the common response: we are in not the US, so you can’t compare. Yes, that’s right. I shouldn’t compare because we are supposed to be better than any other country. For God’s sake we host Hajj on a yearly basis (an assembly of millions of people from different nationalities) so why do we always underestimate ourselves?

On our way out of the stadium, one of the 1,000 ladies who also decided to leave early suggested that we needed men to organize us. This, to me, was a blow and an insult as a woman.  Why do we think so low of ourselves that we need men to tell us what to do?  Are we really incapable of organizing anything ourselves? What happened to the infamous quote: if you want the job done, give it to a woman.

My mom and I got there at about a quarter to 5 PM. The doors to the stadium didn’t open until 5.  We pushed our way through to get to the desk where we were told we had to register, even though we had done that online.  Then, we picked up our pink ponchos and made our way to take a seat in the stadium. Tip for future events:  Build Queues. People will respect the line when they see that order is enforced.

On our way into the stadium a man, standing by the gate, was smoking!!  Hummmm… My mom seemed to be the only person to ask him to put the cigarette out. Did he? I don’t know.

It was exciting. This would be the first time ever that women were allowed into a stadium. As time passed by, more and more women dressed in pink showed up. And then the boredom started.  From where we were setting we were able to see the crowds gather in order to make it to the stadium ground. It was not a pretty sight. There was a lot of pushing, whether it was women pushing each other or pushing the metal closed gate that was supposedly intact to organize the participants’ entry onto the ground. By eight thirty we were ready to go home. We really believed that we will not be able to make it into the ribbon and frankly the crowd was losing patience and becoming very distressed.  The feeling of excitement was exchanged with feelings of panic, especially when girls were climbing the rusted metal gates to get to our section. We pleaded that it might fall on us. But they answered: no it won’t. Tip for future events:  crowd control, especially at such a large gathering is a must and should be done in a very courteous way ( of course I could draw some examples from my experience but that would make a long and boring post).

The crowd control was left to young college girls, which I don’t mind at all, but seriously, how much training did they receive?  One of them complained that no one was taking her seriously because of her age, while another thought that rudeness is a key to assertiveness.

I would have really liked to be in the picture. I would have also liked to cheer for the ladies behind the whole event and learn more about breast cancer and what I can do to help promote a better understanding. There was none of that. Tip for future events: guests like to feel important and that they count.

I would have liked to feel a connection. The abundance of energy at the stadium was supposed to be magnificent but I didn’t feel any of that. I could have believed that the problem lay in me. Thankfully, I have at least 1,000 women to support my claim, although newspapers reported that these women had to leave to attend to their husbands and children. It took over 4 hours to assemble the ribbon (I left after 3 and a half hours so I don’t know how long it took, but it definitely did not take 2 hours as reported by the media.

I understand that organizing such a HUGE event requires A LOT of effort. This, I salute the organizers for. But I also very much appreciate curtsey and respect. This is what the event lacked. For example, weeks before the event, I tried to contact the organizers to get information on the event. Out of 4 people, only one person gave me a prompt and sufficient answer. Interesting enough, I received a prompt reply on Friday when I shared my negative experience with the FB campaign group. I had the feeling though that negative feedback was not  desired .

Bottom line: I felt that this event was a publicity stunt for Saudi Arabia. There is nothing wrong with that. We need it. We need to show the world that we are not nomads who live in the desert and breed terrorists. The problem is that it was done under the disguise of a noble cause.  Most likely this is not what the organizers had in mind, but this is the impression I got. Why couldn’t we have had both?

The Real Moment of Pride:

My dear friend suggested that we do the “wave” but a wave is no fun with only 5 people. So we started to ask our neighbors to join in. There was no response. Finally we got up and made our way to the bottom of our section. We were determined to get this going, even though we were surrounded by blank faces. We convinced a group of students, unfortunately I can’t remember the name of their college, to demonstrate the wave. Little by little, the crown started participating. Less than half an hour later, we had half the women sitting in the stadium do the wave.

And that’s how the first organized wave in Saudi took place. (See, organizing an event  might be difficult, but with the right tools  not becomes impossible.

Tip for future events Entertainment is a very important part of any event. Keep your crowd busy and they will feel less bored and will complain less.

P.s: complaining is very easy… and to demonstrate that we are not just talk,  we are more than welcome to organize any upcoming events.. (LOL yes we already have good jobs)

I’m Only There for the Money!

Vacation Time!

On the plane headed to the US, I had a conversation with a man seated next to me. He told me he lives in Kuwait and was now on vacation and headed home to the US. Perhaps to be friendly or to waste time, I asked him how he liked it over there, in which he replied: The entire Middle East is a Hellhole. I am only there for the money.

Then he asked about my situation . The look on his face when I told him I was Saudi was classic. He started giving excused on why he thought Kuwait and it neighboring countries deserved to be labeled as Hellhole. I found myself incredibly annoyed but who wants to get into a heated discussion with a person you will be stuck with for the next 12 hours?

Had I purged my thoughts to him, it would have gone something like this:

What are you complaining about? You probably get a  salary you wouldn’t have dreamed of, live in one of the best compounds, paid by the company of course, have a company car , also courtesy from the company,  your kid’s school tuition is paid for, get free annual  airline tickets, and you probably don’t even pay your taxes. How is that deal a “ hellhole”? What makes it worse is that  pretty much the only qualification you should have, to be entitled to that package,  is to be a western citizen. But you shouldn’t be blamed for this. Why should you say NO to a perfectly good offer?  Instead, it’s the stereotype mentality and flawed system that should be criticized. If things are so intolerable, why are you still here?… Speaking of Hell, does this mean you sold your soul to the Devil to get the job?

I love living in diverse society, where members of the community consists of different religions and races.  In theory, there  is nothing wrong with having expats, provided of course that they  posses skills not found among locals, but unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many companies around the Kingdom and the Gulf Countries, somehow believe that being a westerner makes a person qualified to do any job, even if they only posses a high school degree . End result is that equal opportunity does not exist. This becomes a huge problem when inflation is on the raise and  qualified locals don’t find decent paying jobs, where the salary might not even cover the essentials of life , such as food and rent. Another scenario is the usual case of a local who has spent a fortune on a post-graduate degree from a western University,   now occupies an entry-level position because an expat is deemed to be more qualified. Talk about being over qualified and underpaid.

I find it puzzling when expats announce loudly: I don’t care.. I will be gone in a few years so why should I do the job right. But with all fairness, there are expats who believe in ethics and that the salary they receive  is in exchange for the good work they do. So, over generalization never works.

I have been constantly reminded of this incident ever since I stepped foot in  Los Angeles, a second home to me. Naturally, there is a lot lacking in my life in Saudi Arabia : not being able to drive, going to the movies,  the dress code …etc, yet on the other hand, life in the Kingdom is comfortable, especially on the financial aspects of life. There are fewer worries in my life here. (I only speak for myself since  opinions and life’s preferences change from one person to the other). I also found myself questioning the motive behind my choice of living in Saudi. My initial response was: I am  only there for the money!

Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one with this attitude. A number of Saudis, especially those who live in Saudi by choice and have a western education,   I discussed the matter with had the same response. So, are we any different from the expats mentioned above?  Perhaps if we have the opportunities granted to them, we would have more hopes in our future. After all this is our country  and it would seem nonsense that we should leave our families behind and become expats because other expats  were brought in to take our places. So, the answer is YES, there is a difference. We do not live in Saudi solely because of the money. We will always have ties to our country and culture, which makes leaving  much more difficult and sometimes even unquestionable. Besides, where would we go? To the countries of the expats? There is a reason they left in the first place.  Or

Female Saudi Lawyers are coming to a court house near you…

 

This photo appeared in today’s Alwatan newspaper, a Saudi Arabic language newspaper with a headline that translates into: Women defend in courts and Judges think they have stronger argument..Saudi female Lawyers recover their client’s right and outperform men. (http://www.alwatan.com.sa/Local/News_Detail.aspx?ArticleID=1841&CategoryID=5).

On a side note : in the article, a female  lawyer, Bayan Zahran, shared that her first case was in a demotic violence case where the husband was sent to prison ( impressive!!!)

Until this day, female lawyers unofficially practice their profession. however, they are permitted to study law. (hard to believe in view of the photo).

But there is hope! The Saudi Ministry of Justice is promising a new law that would allowed female lawyers to practice their profession… but only within the realm of family law related cases (no criminal or commercial cases… but its a start).   

To learn  more about Saudi female Lawyers,  check out Tala Al-Hejailan’s article  on 08 march 2010 in Arab News: Judicial reforms give hope to lawyers  (http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article27225.ece)

What’s Wrong with Marrying a non-Saudi Man?

   In theory? Nothing! Especially if he posses the qualities of a good “human being”, though it’s a subjective concept, the couple is compatible and gets along fine with each other. But, we don’t live in the perfect world or in a land where theories are always applied.  

Unfortunately, we live in a far-from-perfect world. The right to marry a non-Saudi male becomes a difficult task filled with major consequences. But thankfully, there has been a lot of media exposure about the lack of choice in marriage. Maybe in the near future things will chance.    

Growing up, I remember hearing about a Saudi female who married a US citizen. She was the talk of female gatherings. I wonder if they ever had the decency to say something in her face. The most comment I heard over and over again was “oh the poor thing! No Saudi wanted her so she married a foreigner”.  The husband was African-American, which translated into: She couldn’t even find a white American to marry! Equality of Muslims, whether black or purple, was thrown out of the window. (But this is another topic)

This was the only time that I came across social implications of Saudi women marrying non-Saudis. A few years back a Saudi man, mid to late twenties, told me he was thinking of gathering  his friends to beat up a non-Saudi for daring to date a Saudi girl. Apparently, this is a huge blow to his self-esteem, as a privileged male Saudi. To my knowledge the non-Saudi was not beaten up but this gangster’s attitude is not born out of nothing.

Marriage comes with a responsibility, especially towards children. Whatever the parents’ choices are will, sooner or later, reflect on the children. This is even more so when the parent is from another country or culture, and more specifically when the father is the one who is non-Saudi.  

The law is clear on the aspect of citizenship, which is based on a paternal Jus sanguinis principle, Latin for “right of blood” and contrasts with jus soli (Latin for “right of soil”). People are born Saudi because their fathers are Saudi; a Saudi man needs permission to marry a non-Saudi female; she is eligible for citizenship after four years of marriage or when if she gives birth; and a Saudi woman needs permission to marry a non-Saudi. Her foreign husband will always carry a permit status, not automatically up for renewal, and her children will not inherent her citizenship or any of her assets (though I heard this has changed). By law, the children would be treated like Saudis in to education and priority in employment. But in our not-so-perfect world laws aren’t always fully applied.

This is what makes marrying a non-Saudi non-favorable. Laws don’t change easily. So until then, A Saudi woman should think twice before getting married in general and ten times before marrying a non-Saudi.  This is especially for the Saudi girls who think life is just as in the movies “Love Conquers All” and life in the west is about having a good job and drinking coffee with your BFF at the local coffee shop or during lunch after shopping for designer clothes.

I think it is wonderful that such news is making headlines, but on the other hand, Saudi men are somewhat forgotten in this quest for rights to marry. It is true that they still have it better than their female citizens but at the end of the day we live in a society where a family is judged by the individual’s actions. In many tribal families, for a man to take a non-Saudi wife is such a big ordeal that his sisters might not get marriage proposals as a result of his “holy union”. Again the female is the victim.  For a man to take a non-Saudi wife is an indicator that he was rejected by Saudi families for health or moral reasons and so the family becomes unsuitable to have marital ties with….

Marriage is a complex issue in Saudi Arabia.