'Whether we win or lose, we are not going to be on their side'

Photo: Tapash Paul/DRIK


Everything you write is so brilliant—how do you manage?

Well, I can't answer that question without sounding immodest. To be honest, I don't feel like I have to write, or write a certain amount. I only write when something really persuades me to. I was joking with a friend that in June there's going to be a new book of collected essays coming out, called My Seditious Heart, and isn't it strange that three books are my life's work? It doesn't seem to be a lot. In an odd way, I am not a very ambitious person. But I am ambitious about my art when I do it. To intervene in small ways, like my recent Huffington Post article. I wasn't going to do it, but then I spent a couple of nights unable to shut my eyes thinking how everybody is talking about everything except what ought to be spoken about. It's shameful. Then you just can't settle until you do it.

We are curious about your childhood. How did the circumstances in which you grew up shape your choice of issues and your passions?

First of all, maybe I have something to do with you, because my father's family is from Bangladesh. But I actually never knew him. My mother is from Kerala, and they were separated when I was just one year old and I never knew anything about that part of my family for a long time. In Kerala, my mother comes from a very small, traditional community, the Syrian Christians. Unlike the rest of the Christians in India, they are a very closed elite community and very conservative.

Therefore it was a shocking thing that my mother married outside, that she got divorced, and she came back—much like in The God of Small Things. So one was always outside of this grid—it's an iron grid of hierarchy and community in India. I mean every society in the world has it, but I would say India is an exception because caste is added to class. I grew up watching my mother being humiliated in some ways, although she is the most spirited person I know. A lot of her anger about what was happening to her used to be taken out on us. Even the family was not a safe space. So as a very young person you were trying to understand why all this was happening.

That's not an explanation of why one is a writer—my brother went through the same, and he is not a writer. For a writer, or somebody who is going to be a writer, it is an interesting and strange background—because you don't really fit into anything, and therefore you are watching everything, trying to understand what's going on. I am not saying “oh, I was so oppressed”—no. But, I had my own upbringing. I wasn't indoctrinated because the required governing body to indoctrinate me wasn't there.


When did you first feel that you were a writer, that you had this incredible ability to express?

It's not like I realised I had an ability, but I knew writing is how I would express myself. When I was growing up, there was this very cruel Australian missionary called Ms Mitten. She was the first person who taught me, and every day she would say to me, "I can see Satan in your eyes." I went home one day and wrote, “I hate Ms Mitten and I think her knickers are torn.” There was always this sense of trying to express myself through writing.

When I became older, I left home. My mother is a very powerful person—she broke the spirit of this very conservative town all by herself. Whenever people ask me about her, I say she is like a character who escaped from the sets of a Fellini film. She was very free but also very controlling and so even with her, there was conflict. When I was 16, I left home to study architecture. I told her that I was not coming back. I didn't go home after the first year. I put myself through college by working in various offices or through drawing. In those years, one was an architect and not a writer at all. In architecture school, you rarely write. But architecture is fundamental to my writing.

On that note, you have said before that with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, you wanted to see if a book can be like a city. Could you elaborate how architecture ties in with your writing?

By the time I was in third or fourth year architecture, I already began to be someone who was sort of uncomfortable with everything I was being taught, even about architecture. About material, how things should be designed, why they should be designed in this way. I was in constant trouble in college. In the final year, you are supposed to do a thesis—some hospital or housing complex—and I refused. I said I wanted to do a thesis on the city: How the city came to be what it is, what it does to those who live in it, how cities are designed to keep certain people out, how the institutions of the cities work, how spaces work.

Like going to a fancy cinema hall in Delhi—if you come from a certain class, even if you have the money, they wouldn't let you in. And you wouldn't feel comfortable. That's architecture. But I also say there is a citizen and a non-citizen. And the non-citizen lives in the cracks between the institutions. In fact in The Ministry, there's a moment which is so connected to my thesis: when Tilottoma is looking out of her window and she is waiting for Saddam to come, she sees these women who are gathered around a manhole, and a kid is shitting directly into it. She says that maybe this is like a direct deposit into the sewage system, because even the sewage system excludes them. And I actually remember saying that in my architecture school thesis.

What I meant about the book being like a city is more like the understanding of a city like Delhi—and I am not talking about the physical space. I am talking about the narrative where a city sort of overwhelms you. You can't motor through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in the same way you can't drive through Delhi and think you know it. You have to get lost. There's a fear that is created in fiction, that you have to have a few characters, and then everybody has to know them well. In The God of Small Things, there's the safety of family, even if it's a broken family, those people are familiar. In The Ministry, it is already shattered, everything is broken. In fact, the shards of those broken hearts are brought together in the graveyard. And you meet people in the city, and say: this is the postman, this is the taxi driver—and I am like no, they all have stories and names, and you better meet them.

So, The Ministry, is like that. It tries to plan, and it is unplanned, and then it is broken in its narrative. Ultimately, like all cities, the chaos is also part of the plan.

You said writers are afraid to be political these days. Why?

They are not afraid in the sense of the Stalinist era—of course in some regimes they are. Here [in Bangladesh] they are afraid; in India people are beginning to be afraid. People have been assassinated and killed. This morning, I was talking to people who had come from all over the world for Chobi Mela and they were saying how it's all very exciting, the work that is happening here. I said yeah, because for us here, there's always that danger hanging over us. If you are from a regime that practices free speech, what happens sometimes is that writers live between literary festivals and bestseller lists and good reviews and all that. For us, it's much more edgy. But the danger is that most writers have bought into that completely commercial understanding of literature now. It's not that you are worried of writing politically because your head will be cut off, but because you think that this is not art! There's some strange notion of art, I don't know where it came from. I always say, why do people call me a writer-activist? Because you have reduced the definition of a writer to mean some kind of anodyne thing, who doesn't look around, doesn't understand what's going on.

But of course, writers are also being killed. Gauri Lankesh was killed. When I was writing The Ministry, I was terrified. I had to tell myself that “you just write it, however you want to, and keep it in your drawer”. That's the only way I could write it. But we also have to be strategic. I just gambled on the fact that if the book was what I wanted it to be, it would be published all over the world. I kept it quiet in India, and had 49 publishers around the world. In 2017, I travelled everywhere, except in India, so that it would become ridiculous if they tried to ban it in India. But that's a luxury that I had—I mean I earned it with my own work—but everyone doesn't have it. You can get shut down.

You have said that censorship “is being outsourced to the mob” and we are creating “micro-fascists”. Please elaborate.

Yeah, what happens now is that you have all these vigilante groups. It's free-for-all season. Bollywood makes a film—some nonsensical film—and some group will come and say they don't like the history or the representation. It's not like what's happening in Syria or Afghanistan, where there are fundamentalist forces. It's more direct. It's a new experiment in infusing modernism with this kind of medieval poison, which people need to study. It's got all the accoutrements of modernism. There's a symbiotic relationship between these crazy TV channels, and these crazy WhatsApp groups that are sending fake videos and rumours around. WhatsApp in India is the medium of choice for the micro-fascists. It's not the government vs the people. It's the poisoning of the body politic itself. Even if the government is voted out, the institutions have been penetrated.

Let's say you are a Bollywood filmmaker, and you have spent millions on a film; any idiot on the street can say, burn this, it's not showing so and so in a good light. And that's the end of you.

How do you assess the role of the Indian media in this context?

We have 400 24/7 news channels operating in a country and India bombs Pakistan and even before the bombs hit, they were almost showing footage. But it didn't happen! Reuters sent journalists, and it didn't happen, but if 400 news channels are telling you otherwise, then it must have happened! It's gone beyond Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent; it's a psychotic space now. We have major TV anchors saying, “We don't want condemnation, we want blood”. There are only two ways now, you are either national or anti-national. Students are being attacked, activists are being attacked.

You have weapons dealers running TV channels—the guy who wants blood, his TV channel is owned by a weapons dealer! Of course he wants blood. And calling out people by name; there are lynch mobs in the TV studio.

I am terrified of this phenomenon of the 400 24/7 news channels. Now, shamefully they publish whatever they like. I mean the nuclear strike is one thing, but take this example of this young boy called Umar Khalid, who was a JNU student, a leftist. But in 2016, because he was in this protest in JNU, they suddenly said that he is a Muslim, a terrorist, that he has been to Pakistan. All invented by the mainstream TV. Then somebody tried to kill him. What is he going to do? No one will give him a job, he can't go out, he has no protection. They destroyed someone just because they felt like it.

Democracies seem to be taking a backseat globally, governments are more and more powerful, they are usurping the powers of other institutions like the judiciary and the parliament. In the 21st century, why are we losing freedom? Suddenly, democracy is not really the first choice.

When I speak about it in India, one of the ways I explain it is that in the late 80s and early 90s, the government opened two locks. One was the lock of protected markets, and one was the lock of the Babri Masjid. The opening of the two locks unleashed two kinds of fundamentalism: economic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism. Obviously in India it was Hindu fundamentalism; but in general I mean majoritarian fundamentalism. What that did is that it allowed the state to create these bogeymen, anti-development or anti-national—the two have converged now. It allowed the state to militarise. I am not sure if this is the same in Bangladesh, but in India, in order to push through these neo-liberal policies, you had to become a police state. Because you are depending on displacing hundreds of thousands of people. What you see in Central India is the police force turning into an army. It has an enemy. The police have told me that across the river, in the middle of India, they call the place Pakistan, and they shoot to kill. In Kashmir, the army is turning into the police, into some kind of administrative force. All of it is a form of militarisation, because you can't push through any of this without a militarised state.

You are going to see this happening at a much greater pace now. Oxfam shows that nine individual Indians own the combined wealth of the bottom 500 million. How is that going to be maintained without a police force? Last week the Supreme Court passed an order which said that 20 lakh adivasis are to be evicted by July. Now they have put a stay on it. You are willing to strip them of everything they have, legally, whereas if you said that strip these nine people, you'd be saying “but that's crazy”. Our imaginations have been distorted to the point of lunacy.

What is the issue that is uppermost in your mind today?

I don't see things as issues. For me, it's a worldview. The dam and the caste and Kashmir are not separate. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells you that. That's what fiction does, it tells you that these things are all connected. But right now, what must be in everybody's mind would have to be how close we came to a nuclear war. And the kind of corrosion that we are facing. If we have a dictator and people can see that this is a bad guy, and we are scared of him, that we might go to jail, let's keep quiet—that's one thing. But if you have this kind of poison that is being directly dripped into the bloodstream of the people, how do you recall that? How are we going to heal ourselves?

If you have seen the pronouncements of Indian “scientists” at the science congress, saying that Einstein's theory of relativity is wrong, and that one of them has written a letter to Stephen Hawking that the theory of black hole is wrong, and that they should rename magnetic waves as the Modi wave—what can you do with these people? They are changing science and history books. If you were to take away one generation of farmers, the next generations would not know what to do with the land. The same way, if they actually manage to destroy this coming generation with this level of rubbish, who do you talk to? The greatest danger is not fascism, it's cretinism. It's not that there's only an attack on intellectuals, there's an attack on all forms of intelligence. They are very suspicious of intelligence.

Mahfuz Anam , Sushmita S. Preetha and Moyukh Mahtab


To read the rest of the article please click here.

2 reactions Share

'I don't have any grudge': Husband of victim says he forgives terrorist

Farid Ahmad, whose wife Husna Ahmad was killed in the New Zealand terrorist attack says he harbours no hatred toward terrorist Brenton Tarrant, insisting forgiveness is the best path forward.

Farid Ahmad , who survived the Al Noor mosque terror attack but his wife Husna was killed, speaks to the media in Christchurch on March 17, 2019.
Farid Ahmad , who survived the Al Noor mosque terror attack but his wife Husna was killed, speaks to the media in Christchurch on March 17, 2019. (AFP)


A man whose wife was killed in the Christchurch terrorist attack as she rushed back into a mosque to rescue him said he harbours no hatred toward the terrorist, insisting forgiveness is the best path forward.

"I would say to him 'I love him as a person'," Farid Ahmad told AFP news agency. 

"I could not accept what he did. What he did was a wrong thing."

Asked if he forgave the 28-year-old terrorist, he said: "Of course. The best thing is forgiveness, generosity, loving and caring, positivity."

Husna Ahmad, 44, was killed at the Al Noor mosque –– the first of two targeted by the white supremacist.

Fifty people, at least four of them women, were killed in the attack on the mosques where worshippers had gone for Friday prayers.

'She was busy saving lives'

Ahmad and his wife emigrated from Bangladesh to New Zealand in 1990 and have one daughter.

When the shooting started, Husna helped several people escape from the women's and children's hall.

"She was screaming 'come this way, hurry up', and she took many children and ladies towards a safe garden," Ahmad said.

"Then she was coming back for checking about me, because I was in a wheelchair, and as she was approaching the gate she was shot. She was busy saving lives, forgetting about herself."

Ahmad, 59, who has been confined to a wheelchair since being hit by a drunk driver in 1998, believes he escaped the hail of bullets because the terrorist was focused on other targets.

"This guy was shooting one person two, three times, probably that gave some time to us to move out... even the dead he was shooting them again."

Ahmad, who was a butcher but now sells homeopathy products, did not see his wife when he left the mosque and only learned of her death after someone photographed her body.

"Her picture was out in the social media, so somebody showed me the picture and I identified quite easily."

Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant has yet to enter a plea in the single murder charge brought against him so far.

A self-professed white supremacist he flashed a white power symbol when he arrived in court on Sunday. His meandering "manifesto" is filled with racist vitriol, detailing two years of planning for the massacre.

In the 74-page screed, he says he first began considering an attack in April and May of 2017 while traveling in France and elsewhere in Western Europe.

'I don't have any grudge'

Ahmad on Sunday faced the difficult task of formally identifying his wife's body and claim her effects.

Soft spoken, his eyes heavy with grief, he spoke fondly of his wife.



To read the rest of the article please click here.

2 reactions Share

Under Mississippi’s new abortion law, by the time women realize they’re pregnant it could be too late


Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed a so-called “heartbeat bill” into law on Thursday that would ban abortions once doctors are able to detect a fetal heartbeat — effectively outlawing the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Reproductive rights activists have decried the bill as a flagrant violation of Roe v. Wade. In some cases, they say, heartbeat bills would bar women’s access to abortion before they even realized they were pregnant.

“This ban is one of the most restrictive abortion bans signed into law, and we will take Mississippi to court to make sure it never takes effect,” said Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights.




Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican and a candidate to succeed Mr. Bryant, said that Mississippi would be unafraid to spend money to defend the law, which the Senate approved without debate on Tuesday.

“There have been threats of lawsuits, and I’m sure that’s going to happen, and that’s O.K.,” Mr. Reeves said. “I will put my record of fiscal responsibility up against anyone in this building today, and anyone that’s has ever stood in this building before, and I have absolutely no problem supporting strongly whatever it costs to defend this lawsuit because I care about unborn children.”

While fetal heartbeat proposals are not new, momentum around them has grown significantly during this year’s legislative sessions in Republican-controlled state capitals.

The measures clash with Supreme Court decisions that have recognized a woman’s right to an abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy. And opponents of abortion say that is part of the intent: To land a new case before the current Supreme Court in hopes of setting sharper limits or even an outright ban. The confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — and the potential shifting of the court’s direction — has provoked new urgency among critics of abortion.

“I would be proud if it’s Kentucky that takes it all the way up to the Supreme Court and we challenge Roe v. Wade,” Damon Thayer, the Republican majority leader of the Kentucky Senate, told reporters in January as state lawmakers considered a fetal heartbeat measure. “That would be absolutely the pinnacle of my career in the Legislature.”

Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas are among the states expected to approve fetal heartbeat measures this year.

In Georgia, where the House approved such a bill this month, the issue stirred a personal and passionate debate.

“A child in the womb should be worthy of full legal protection,” said Representative Ed Setzler, a Republican who sponsored the measure, which has already won the backing of Gov. Brian Kemp.

Representative Erica Thomas, a Democrat, disagreed.


Timothy Williams and Alan Blinder


To read the rest of the article please click here.

3 reactions Share

The man behind a woman who fiercely fought her demons

This man, my best friend, has always been my rock. He is not 'The man behind a successful woman' but he is 'The man behind a woman who fiercely fought her demons'.

Since I was a little kid, I was always successful - always got what I went after. The only thing that was missing from my life was somebody who understood my illness, somebody who didn't run away when I was out of control, somebody could help me in my struggles.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Panic Disorder. I had given up on myself, my illness, my life. I was only worried about not feeling what I was feeling then, not caring about what I was doing to myself, my body, my present and my future. I did every worst thing possible that I could do to myself.

During my struggle, many people came into my life, they left. He came and he stayed by my side. He showed me what the words respect, love and care mean when they are truly felt.

I met him in 2013 in the US, when I had run away from Pakistan (applied for a scholarship in a foreign university so that I could escape my life, it was one of the only few things that I did to escape my pain that were actually healthy) We had a lot of differences; religious, cultural. It didn't matter. He taught me how to love myself. He helped me heal all the scars from all the trauma that I had been through. (Not going to share the tragedies) When we decided to get married and he asked my dad for my hand in marriage, my dad had him wait for a year for his answer because he couldn't believe that his daughter had agreed to get married. I had never wanted to get married, I had always thought it was a burden. We got married in 2016. We were still fighting my demons. Today, my illnesses are still there but I have never been more stable. I am actually content with myself.

This November, we have celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. He still loves me like he did when we first fell in love.


Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation. - Elizabeth Gilbert



2 reactions Share

Celebrating Inspiring Woman of Today - Fatima Niazi

"Being a female journalist is not easy in a country where patriarchy reigns. A place where you are judged for wearing a lipstick to work, a place where you have to hold up a poker face while interacting with men you interview just so they take you seriously. But it is these challenges that make the job more meaningful - knowing that you are one of the drops of water that will one day form a river of change. Living in a country where there are so many human rights violations also makes one understand why journalism came into being in the first place - to take down the oppressors and bring the truth to the forefront. But most importantly, it gives you a reason to live because you know your struggle will help influence the lives of those around you in some way. It also serves as a reality check of the privilege you and the greatness women can achieve if they put their mind to it. I started working in a news organization when I was just 21 and continue working 10 years later. Now I work for Herald Magazine of Dawn media group. While I was busy writing stories, I saw my friends forced to be married and then domestically abused. Though the chains of patriarchy are strong, the women breaking to get free of them are stronger. More and more young girls are now opting to work in news organizations because they realize the media gives them a voice which the society tries to stifle.” Fatima Niazi, Karachi

1 reaction Share

To Show Solidarity with Muslims, Jewish Synagogues in New Zealand Will Close on the Sabbath

"We offer our full assistance and support to the Muslim community and stand united with it against the scourge of terrorism and racism, which we must do all we can to banish from New Zealand."

At least 49 people were killed and 20 more were injured when a man in New Zealand opened fire on two mosques in the country. Now, in what is being called an “unprecedented move” Jewish leaders have announced that synagogues in the country will remain closed Saturday, their Sabbath.


It is the first time in history that synagogues will not be opened on Shabbat.

 The president of The New Zealand Jewish Council, Stephen Goodman, told The Jewish Chronicle, “The New Zealand Jewish Council has no adequate words to describe how sickened and devastated we are by the coordinated attacks on Christchurch mosques today.”

Add your reaction Share

Napa festival kicks off with Hashr’s Mureed-i-Shak

One of the recurring themes in William Shakespeare’s plays is that of jealousy caused by unfounded misgivings or doubts. Othello is a cogent example.

In The Winter’s Tale, the situation is a bit different and the treatment of the subject quirkier. Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s Urdu adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, titled Mureed-i-Shak, is thought to be the first play that Hashr wrote for a (proper) theatrical company at the end of the 19th century. It was well received at the time.

The National Academy of Performing Arts’ (Napa) International Theatre Festival 2019 began on Tuesday evening with the academy’s third-year students’ version of Mureed-i-Shak. Directed by Zia Mohyeddin, let’s put this out at the outset: the effort pretty much deserved to be the opening act for the event which will conclude on March 31.

The play revolves around a king, Sikandar Jaa (Naveed Kamal), who mistrusts his wife, Husn Ara (Fajar Sheikh), and harbours the suspicion that she has slept with his friend Humayun (Samhan Ghazi), the ruler of another country. Sikandar and Husn Ara have a son, Khursheed (Saim). Sikandar is not willing to give any margin to Husn Ara to clarify her position vis-à-vis Humayun, so much so that he puts her in jail, where she gives birth to a daughter. Sikandar is so consumed with shak that he thinks Humayun is the baby girl’s biological father. As a result he abandons the newborn. The baby is picked and brought up by a shepherd, Prabhu Singh (Abdul Hafeez). She grows up to become a beautiful young woman, Gulnar (Fajar in another role), who falls in love with Feroz (Rahil Siddiqi), the son of Humayun.

The basic premise of the play sets it up nicely for a climax in which wrongs are righted and doubts are cast away!

The point that needs to be emphasised is that Mureed-i-Shak staged on Tuesday was a truncated version of the original play. Given that it was performed by third-year students (who did a fine job, by the way) the shortened script came as a boon. Anyone who’s seen Hashr’s dramas would know that they’re marked by highfalutin, rhyming Urdu, which could be disconcerting for contemporary audiences, especially the younger lot. But the director did not let that happen. He imparted the right kind of pace to the text which never lost momentum until the last line was delivered and gesture made. He also kept the inner conflict(s) of the play neatly fleshed out.



To read the rest of the article please click here.

2 reactions Share

Balance to move

They said girls don't play chess.

I fell in love with chess the first time I saw it. My brother was playing it and it was like a blitz. Rapidly trading pieces, planning ahead and if you make one bad move, you lose. I started learning it with my brother and have never looked back. And it was fun when I won against him.
In 2012, Youth festival had the Chess Tournament at my university where I applied and they told me it's not for girls. No one decides what is a girl's game and what's not.
I can still beat you.  
Add your reaction Share

Artists imagine a world without harassment, fear

The 16 Days of Activism campaign is held every year from Nov 25 to Dec 10.

An exhibition of digital illustrations depicting the harassment of women at public places and imagining a world free from fear and violence opened at the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) on Monday.

The exhibition, which was the outcome of Oxfam Pakistan’s Free from Fear Digital Illustration Competition during last year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, was opened by the Australian and Canadian high commissioners as well as Oxfam Country Director Mohammad Qazilbash.

The 16 Days of Activism campaign is held every year from Nov 25 to Dec 10.

As part of the competition, visual arts students were asked to create a world where women move and operate free from fear in public spaces, by encouraging young people to think about harassment and violence and how it limits mobility and access to health, education, employment and political participation.


The shortlisted artworks were evaluated and judged by a panel that included internationally acclaimed digital artist Shezil Malik, Pakistan’s first female cartoonist Nigar Nazar and filmmaker and human rights activist Samar Minallah.

They shortlisted pieces from 100 entries from art institutions including the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture Karachi, National College of Arts (NCA) Rawalpindi, Beaconhouse National University (BNU) Lahore, Karachi University, Comsats University Islamabad, Centre of Excellence and Design Jamshoro and Iqra University.

Eshal Javed Malik from the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture won first prize for her piece ‘Rebellion’.

She told Dawn that she has portrayed the theme of gender inequality in Pakistani society where women are often discouraged and criticized if they do the same thing men do. Her work depicting a girl skateboarding, wearing jeans and defying all kinds of patriarchal remarks emblazoned on a wall in the background.


She said ‘Rebellion’ was “a depiction of how women are considered a rebellion if they carry out activities that would otherwise be considered normal if men were to carry them out.”

Second prize went to Aasma Qureshi from the Centre of Excellency of Art and Design for her illustration ‘Nadar’, which means fearless.

She explained: “I have tried to depict layers of concepts in starting from the one where a young girl is seen doing what appears to be graffiti. We are seeing women painting walls for a change without any fear of any kind of harassment.”

“The biggest barrier for a woman going out, doing what she wants, is the fear of getting harassed,” she stated.



To read the rest of the article please click here.

2 reactions Share

Male guardianship system pushes Saudi women to seek asylum in the United States

(Despite winning certain rights over the years, especially the right to drive and vote, Saudi women are still subjugated by the repressive male guardian system which causes many to flee abroad. Photo: Shutterstock)


March 11, 2019: Stories of Saudi women being mistreated in their country have long been in the news. According to many human rights organizations, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst countries for women to live in.


Saudi women have long fought discrimination for decades. For example, in 1991, a group of them drove through the streets of Riyadh calling for the ban on female driving to be lifted.


In recent years, there has been increasing international spotlight on Saudi women fleeing their country for a better life in the west.


Most recently, teenager Rahaf al-Qunun drew international attention when she was stopped in Thailand while attempting to escape to Australia. After Thai immigration officials stopped her from continuing her journey to Australia and placed her in a Bangkok hotel, she barricaded herself in the room and pleaded on social media to the world about her predicament, stating physical and emotional abuse by her family back in Saudi Arabia. Soon, after much international attention and the much-publicized social media campaign, she was declared a refugee by the United Nations and flew to Canada where she was granted asylum.


No country for women

According to researcher Safaa Fouad Rajkhan, Saudi Arabia has an approximate population of 28.5 million and is a monarchy ruled by the Al- Saud family. The Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad’s teachings) are deeply embedded in its governance. The kingdom’s institutions such as the judiciary are exclusively-male. Public morality is heavily policed.


Sex segregation is strictly imposed. This restricts women’s significant participation in public life.


Despite making great strides in promoting female literacy and education in the past 50 years or so, its educational model is largely regarded as sexist as it  heavily emphasizes on making girls grow up to fulfil their ‘Islamic duties’ to become a good wife and mother above all else.


Rajkhan further stressed that employment-wise, the kingdom has one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the Middle East, even though it has grown by 8.8 per cent in 2018. She says family modesty and honor hold sway and therefore women’s participation in the workforce - regarded as largely the domain of men – is thought to bring stigma to society.


Until recently, women in the kingdom were unable to vote or drive.

Perhaps the most significant barrier that women in the kingdom face is the guardianship system. Regardless of their age, each woman in the kingdom has a male guardian, who is usually either her father, husband, brother or son, whose permission she must seek to do things such as travel abroad, marry, study and sometimes, even access medical care. Some women are lucky to have understanding family members, but most are not.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report saying that the guardianship system is "the most significant impediment to realizing women's rights in the country."

Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, told Muslim World Today: “The Saudi male guardianship system is essentially derived from an ambiguous verse in the Qur’an that some scholars argue has been misinterpreted by the Saudi religious establishment.”

“Chapter 4, verse 34 of the Quran states, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.” Many Islamic scholars dispute the way in which Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment has interpreted this verse. The system has existence in different forms and iterations since the establishment of the modern Saudi state in the 1930s,” Coogle added further.

Asked what the barriers that Saudi women face in dismantling the guardian system, Coogle said: “Saudi activists trying to dismantle the guardianship system face major obstacles, including a lack of political will by the Saudi state to end its own discriminatory practices as well as to root out gender and sex discrimination by private actors in Saudi society. In addition, those who engage in independent activism in Saudi Arabia risk being harassed, jailed, and put through unfair trials by the authorities.”

The guardianship system has sparked the #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaign where nearly 15, 000 thousand of fed-up Saudi women submitted a petition to the Saudi government in September 2018, calling for the end of the system.


Fleeing oppression

Saudi women trying to escape the kingdom goes back to the 1970s, when a female member of the Saudi royal family was caught with her lover while they were trying to flee the kingdom. They were charged with adultery and executed.

In the past few years, human rights groups say that there have been a rise of numbers of Saudi women who flee to the US to seek asylum, though the figures remain unknown.

According to a news article by Al-Jazeera English, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the number of asylum seekers from Saudi Arabia has tripled over the past few years: more than 800 cases since 2017, compared to less than 200 in 2012.


In 2017, CNN documented the journey of a Saudi woman - who went by the false name Arwa for the sake of security - in trying to obtain asylum status in the U.S.

Arwa was living in Houston, Texas at the time of the shoot. She had previously came to the U.S as a student and then went back to Saudi Arabia to work for a few years. One night in 2015, frustrated by the kingdom’s repression of women, Arwa snuck out from her family home, travelled to neighboring Bahrain and flew to the U.S.

Arwa did not seek a lawyer and instead relied on the advice of friends who had received asylum. She also sought information online.

"What I really want is just to live normally without fear and not have to pretend to be somebody else, that's all I ever want," Arwa told the media organization.

"What really scares me is that I wouldn't get this asylum, and I would be returned and I would die young, and that I would lose everything that I tried to build, that I would just fail."

The CNN documentary ended with a happy note: Arwa received asylum status.


Making the perilous journey with the help of social media

“Saudi women face challenges obtaining a visa, and even after they arrive to the US they face challenges finding and affording legal representation to assist them in their asylum cases. Furthermore, they often face challenges proving their asylum case if they don’t have detailed records such as threatening messages for example,” Coogle explained to Muslim World Today.

Many who flee Saudi Arabia do so via Turkey, a famous holiday spot for Saudis, and proceed to Georgia where they can enter without a visa.

Thanks to social media, Saudi women are now able to escape easier.

There are various ways that these women flee, but those who succeeded said they had planned their escape by discussing with other women – who had successfully fled or those who also intended to flee - via private chat groups.

“All these women who 15 years ago would have never been heard from can now find a way to reach out,” Coogle, told the New York Times recently.


What happens if they are caught?

Even if the women are able to flee the kingdom, their risk of being caught doesn’t end there. Their families try to force them home, and Saudi Arabia has a well-financed system, made up of local diplomats, who stress repatriation.

Once caught, the women are repatriated and receive criminal charges of “parental disobedience” or polluting the kingdom’s reputation.

“As Saudi women, we are still treated as property that belongs to the state,” Saudi feminist activist Moudi Aljohani told the New York Times recently.

Aljohani came to the U.S as a student and is now seeking asylum there. “It doesn’t matter if the woman has any political views or not. They are going to go after her and forcibly return her,” she said.

Will there be any changes?

In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS) has promised to improve everyday life for Saudi women. He criticized the religious police who infamously harassed women who did not “dress appropriately” and recently lifted the ban on women driving. Strict laws on entertainment, for example, have been slightly relaxed.

However, there has also been an increase of clampdown on women’s rights activists -along with intellectuals and poets- whom the Crown Prince said have been arrested due to “national security concerns”.

Recently this month, 28 members of the European Union and eight other states – including Australia, Canada and Iceland - condemned the kingdom’s arrests of women’s rights defenders.

Appearing on Al-Jazeera English, Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Bessma Momani said that despite the progress in the kingdom, many citizens feel that “political commentary, free thought are frankly no longer welcomed in post-Arab Spring” and that this means that real progress is still far away.

Asylum in the US

While the U.S. has a growing reputation for being anti-immigrant under the current administration, immigration attorney Supna Zaidi said that asylum claims are still being heard.

“Cases filed since spring of 2018 are being processed quickly,” she told Muslim World Today.

With regard to the difficulty in proving their case in the US, Ms Zaidi said: “Saudi women fleeing Saudi Arabia have a strong case because the country conditions have not improved under the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Rather, the American media is more than aware of the arrests of women rights activists, their detention, and the stories of women trying to flee.”

“My most recent asylum case of a woman from Saudi Arabia was successful because her testimony was consistent, and with our advice, corroborated her story with statements from others that knew her, and medical documentation, including a psychological evaluation that confirmed the emotional trauma she endured as a result of her experiences in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Ms Zaidi added further.




Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is a writer with Muslim World Today. She can be contacted at mohani@muslimworldtoday.org.

4 reactions Share