Skip to content

Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

Submissions Welcome! Please submit your original pieces of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, art, or political analysis.

Check out the blog Saudi Women Driving for some of the latest stories from the Kingdom featuring the work of women’s activists!


By Neil MacFarquhar, May 23, 2011

Published by the New York Times

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The government of Saudi Arabia moved swiftly to extinguish a budding protest movement of women claiming the right to drive, a campaign inspired by uprisings across the Arab world demanding new freedoms but at risk Monday of foundering.

Cars at a checkpoint near a mall entrance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A national protest supporting the right for women to drive is scheduled for June 17.

Manal al-Sharif, 32, one of the campaign organizers, was detained Sunday in the eastern city of Dammam for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her cause, said her lawyer, Adnan al-Saleh.

Ms. Sharif was arrested after two much-publicized drives last week to highlight the Facebook and Twitter campaigns she helped organize to encourage women across Saudi Arabia to participate in a collective protest scheduled for June 17.

The campaigns, which had attracted thousands of supporters — more than 12,000 on the Facebook page — have been blocked in the kingdom. Ms. Sharif’s arrest was very likely intended to give others pause before participating in the protests in a country where a woman’s public reputation, including her ability to marry, can be badly damaged by an arrest.

“Usually they just make you sign a paper that you will not do it again and let you go,” said Wajiha Howeidar, who recorded Ms. Sharif while driving on Thursday. “They don’t want anybody to think that they can get away with something like that. It is a clear message that you cannot organize anything on Facebook. That is why she is in prison.”

The revolt that overthrew the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and similar efforts in the Middle East gained crucial momentum online.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. But the topic remains a highly emotional issue in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even work without their husbands’, or fathers’, permission. For religious puritans, the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions. A political cartoon here once depicted car keys attached to a hand grenade.

Even before the arrest, the debate was raging online, on television and in the streets between supporters and opponents. One argument endorsing the change is that women drove donkeys in Koranic times, with a television cleric noting in recent days that handling a donkey was actually harder than driving a vehicle. Supporters believed that the changes sweeping the Arab world made it the right moment for women to seize the initiative.

An online petition addressed to King Abdullah, asking him to free Ms. Sharif and grant women the right to drive, gathered signatures from more than 600 men and women after it was organized by Walid Abu al-Khair, a Saudi lawyer and human rights advocate. Saudis are often reluctant to publicly attach their names to political actions.

Many opponents were religious puritans who object to the very idea of women being exposed to strangers outside their homes by driving. The ban is rooted more primarily in religious fatwas, nonbinding decrees by clerics.

In the new online battlefield, conservative clerics have been deploying their own Twitter accounts to call on the religious police to be extra vigilant against the prospect of women drivers.

Some women were opposed, too, because they said that driving remains such a social lightning rod and that raising the issue is likely to set back efforts to gain more fundamental freedoms like voting or ending the legal guardianship that allows Saudi men to control virtually every aspect of women’s lives.

But Ms. Sharif and others decided to take to the roads in May to encourage a higher turnout for the national protest. Saudi newspapers have been filled with articles in recent days detailing a rash of women taking to the roads — publishing confessions of women who drove their children to school, a father to the airport or themselves on errands.

One of the arguments for allowing women to drive is the economic cost. There are some 800,000 foreign drivers in the kingdom, and the roughly $350 monthly salary needed to hire one is considered an economic drain on the middle class.

Ms. Sharif, an information technology specialist with the state-run oil company Aramco, has a reputation for pulling stunts to highlight the lack of rights for women. Such was her renown that certain myths about her circulate widely as fact—like the false tale that she once rode a donkey down a main Riyadh shopping street until the religious police stopped her.

She took her drive on Saturday with her brother Mohamed al-Sharif, who was initially detained with her by the religious police and then released. The local police returned to her house after midnight to arrest her again.

“That was a mistake,” Mr. Saleh, her lawyer, said in a telephone interview from Dammam. “It is not considered a big crime in Saudi Arabia — it was not smuggling drugs, nor murder, nor rape — it was a girl driving a car.”

By Dina Karam
Originally published by Sawt al Niswa, May 3, 2011

Who’s that girl supposed to be?

I wake up and look in the mirror to see the reflection. Somehow it is not me, or what I think should be me. My body also feels heavy, another weight to handle.

This idea came about slowly, of what I guess I should look like. Much like Beirut after the war; slowly reconstructed into a patchwork of functional and less functional pieces.

I don’t fit into what I think is thought of as pretty. But perceptions are signs of the times. Constantly measured, labeled, balanced into a prototype of a girl who is just one image. So simple, it’s easy, an archetype, a clear map, an icon, of sorts, of beauty. Immutable, like the political leaders whose posters we veneer and like to think of as eternal guiding lights.

I do not know really where the image came from, but she is daring, super confident in her sexiness, like she’s conquered all the people who dared not to be attracted to her. Isn’t that rather a contradiction, though, to the notion of beauty? And although her eyebrows seem like paint, she has pout-y lips that look like they’re practicing the word “O”, and something not so alive adorns her expression; sometimes maybe, long ago, people would have thought her vulgar.

With my funny walk, questioning eyes, big divided teeth, a longer nose, a funny voice, I am not in line with this poster girl, but an outlier. A statistical exception from the rule of a perfect hypothesis: how beauty should be.

I am also not a particular consumer of “Instituts de beaute.” They seem to sprout like the “khadarji” (vegetable grocers) at every corner of these city streets. Like a must-stop pit-stop, asking me “Did you not forget something?” The few times I’ve done my nails it felt like trying to waltz while being trapped in a straight jacket, forbidden to use these precious glazed hands. A male friend, not the type who’s much into appearances, once told me that my feet looked like I had just stepped out of a cabin in the woods. Because I had no nail polish on; and it was summer. Apparently toes can carry the most alarming politically incorrect messages. Check yourself, sisters!

No, I also do not like to go to the hairdresser, in fact I hate the blow-dryer, and the small talk of what the best looks are like. Beauty – aghast – is political! Yes, take that 14-ers and 8-ers, you have company!

The “coiffeur” likes me though, and says I’m his favorite client, even though I tell him some of the styles cooked under those scissors and gun-hair dryers look like they are copies of that dog they call poodle. I told him about a super idea I really think he should look into: It’s called “Instituts de après-beaute” or “Post-beauty institutes.”

But spring is out and along with the akidenyah fruits sprouting along the branches and the sudden sweet warmth invading the morning air, you see a lot of nose bandages also, sported with a high head by boys and girls, along with the red eyes; marks of a brutal transformation. Along with the big billboards advertising plastic surgery devices and victorious body parts. The battle of appearances has begun, for the big summer sun is unforgiving and sees all imperfections.

Apparently, to graduate and fly from the state of an “un-becoming” caterpillar to the much-vaunted butterfly in the Lebanese Absolute Republic of Beauty, you should (in order of importance):

1. Do your nose by age 16.
2. Permanently erase the traces of Middle Eastern brows – think laser beams – then tattoo – yes, tattoo – your eyebrows into perfect semi-circular arches.
3. Buy colored lenses, if you have the misfortune of having dark eyes.
4. Consider breast modification; after all, your bank can help.
5. Consider pouting your lips – with some kind of acid.
6. Wear 5-inch heels to school, university, work – because it’s such a good work-out.
The whole industry of plastic surgery, beauty institutes, hair salons, nail bars, make-up people and society magazines (for the final results) forms a big chunk of the GDP, a vital chunk of an economic ecosystem feeding and employing many. In addition to the brain drain, sectarianism, and about ten thousand out-migrants each year, beauty is also made in Lebanon.

So I would like to call for a National Pajama Day, whereby everyone would go out in the streets in their pajamas in the state they just woke up in – no fixing yourself up in anyway, not a single hair combed. We’ll call it the “rebellion of the pajamas.” After all, the revolt of “les sans-culottes” overthrew a kingdom.

originally published on

WASHINGTON – May 19, 2011 – Zainab Al-Suwaij, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), attended President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East today at the State Department.

Al-Suwaij is an Iraq native who participated in the 1991 uprising that for one week liberated 15 Iraqi provinces. Following the September 11 attacks, she co-founded AIC to promote responsible leadership for the Muslim-American community. She has spent the last six years leading nonviolent training programs in the Middle East, including publishing an Arabic comic book on Martin Luther King.

Al-Suwaij offered the following statement on the President’s speech:

“The freedom ride that began 65 years ago when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus has now come to the Middle East. President Obama correctly observed that through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the Middle East have ‘achieved in six months more than terrorists have in decades.’

“The people of the region have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to nonviolence in the face of deadly assaults by illegitimate rulers. Their courage should dispel stereotypes that for too long dismissed the Middle East’s potential for liberal reform.

“America’s pragmatic policy of the past six decades – banking on dictators – is now revealed as a failed long-term investment strategy. It ignored the forgotten yet central Middle East conflict – between the people of the region and their repressive rulers – which has now exploded onto our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

“Economic development alone cannot address the historic challenge before us, and simply holding elections is a recipe for disaster. To achieve lasting liberty and stability, America needs to take decisive action to nurture civic institutions that respect individual rights. We help build open societies by supporting unconditionally people who share these values.

“We at AIC are already working to translate the values the President expressed into tangible programs: via the ‘Know Your Rights’ education effort in Egypt, the ‘Ambassadors of Peace’ initiative in Iraq, and contests on liberty for young essayists and filmmakers across the region. As Muslim-Americans, we have unique contributions to make during this historic time.”

AIC is a civil-rights organization promoting tolerance and the exchange of ideas among Muslims and between other peoples. With the motto “passionate about moderation,” the organization has offices in Washington, Boston, Egypt, and Iraq.

This post was originally published by The Adventures of Salwa, a sexual harassment awareness group based in Lebanon.  Written by Alex Shams, it tells the story of one man’s commitment to changing attitudes about the permissibility of sexual harassment in the Middle East.  He has gone on to launch the blog Qaweme Harassment as an open forum for stories about sexual harassment and as a platform for Beirut’s “harass map,” cataloguing incidents of harassment across the city.  Check out his post below!

It’s funny how sometimes in life you feel like you see everything, but later realize in fact you can see nothing.

Our experience of the world is shaped completely by how the world perceives us, and even the most basic ideas we might receive as obvious and unchanging- how it feels to walk down the street, for example- are all extremely dependent on who we are, what we look like, and how we are perceived. This, I think, is obvious to many people, and particularly for many women, but as a man I spent many years wholly unaware of the idea that every aspect of my daily life and my daily experience could and would be drastically different if I was not perceived by others as a biological man. Privilege is something truly blinding when you have it, but painfully obvious when you don’t.

It was one, hot Egyptian summer some years ago when I finally began the process of confronting my privilege. Studying in Cairo, I had arrived and spent a week on my own before starting classes. One of the first nights, I went out with a fellow student who I had met in my first class. For me, Cairo’s streets were exhilarating and liberating- a million people out at once walking and yelling and talking and screaming and smoking arguile and doing everything twenty-four hours a day was shocking and beyond exciting to me.

To say the least, I was eager to enter Downtown at night and be soaked up in it’s liveliness with a friend. As we began our walk, searching for an old restaurant in Downtown’s alleyways, I became quickly aware of the fact that these streets were not so liberating for my friend. Suddenly, I came to absorb the fact that 50% of Egypt’s population was NOT cruising these streets, and my friend was a part of that demographic that did not feel particularly “exhilarated” by crowds of thousands of men staring and itching to offer disgusting remarks of approval.

I realized that the week I had spent walking Downtown, feeling liberated and alive and imagining that I was seeing everything this city had to offer, was a week of complete blindness. I had no idea what it was like to experience this city as 50% of the population, and of the world, experience it, and words like harassment were not even a part of my vocabulary. Everything I had experienced in life had been experienced with a blindfold of privilege. I needed to rethink everything I had ever imagined were “how things were.”

The years since that summer have involved a lot of listening, a lot of trying to understand, a lot of reading, and a lot of getting angry. I will never know exactly what it feels like to be objectified and sexualized and subjected to verbal harassment and sexual harassment and the fear of sexual assault and the revulsion women feel on an ongoing basis. And as much as I listened to friends vent and fume over experiences they share with me, the fact is that my presence would deter these men from engaging in their demeaning games- meaning I would never be able to fulfill my silly, faux-gallant urge to punch someone in the face.

The fact is that as a man, and as an ally, I have to recognize my role is not in defending women or punching harassers (not that my fists would do much). Women don’t need me to defend them, and there’s no reason they should- women can defend themselves pretty damn well fine without me assuming a man needs to step in.

My role, as a male ally, is to spread awareness of the problem with other men, and make sure they recognize that Harassment, verbal and physical, is NOT okay and there is NO reason to sexualize or attack a human being merely for daring to enter the public sphere. As an ally, I must be constantly beginning conversations and entering into topics which I know many men, blinded by their privilege, will disagree with me on or blow off. It doesn’t matter if these conversations are uncomfortable, as 50% of human beings cannot go on with their daily life without being made to feel uncomfortable for the simple reason that they are women. As an activist, and as a feminist, it seems pretty damn reprehensible and misogynistic to prioritize my own momentary discomfort over the constant discomfort of billions of human beings who happen to be (mostly) female.

This is why I started the blog Qaweme Harassment. Tired of merely being able to offer sympathy to bad story after bad story, and having converted most of male friends to feminism, I decided to act and work with the Adventures of Salwa create a place for people to share their experiences as well as a way to talk about what works in terms of combating harassment. In addition, I wanted people to be able to chart where harassment was happening and visually recognize it as a phenomenon that our entire metropolis, regardless of religion, race, sect, gender presentation, etc is dealing with. And thus was born, Qaweme Harassment.

Originally published in The Economist on May 12, 2011.

Women’s influence in politics is growing, but it is still small

THIS week in Istanbul 13 European countries signed a Council of Europe convention on combating violence against women. All 47 members were urged to comply. Turkey pushed hard for the convention, which calls for hotlines, shelters and legal aid for abused women.

So it should. Turkey ranks with Russia as one of the worst countries in Europe for abuse of women. By the government’s admission, five women a day were killed by abusers in the first seven months of 2009. A chilling new report from Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, suggests that the situation is getting worse. It finds that 42% of women over 15 have suffered physical or sexual violence; they are vulnerable even when pregnant. Asli, a 21-year old Kurdish woman, was injected with poison, beaten and raped by her husband and in-laws, and locked in a barn without food or water. She decided to seek help from local prosecutors after her father-in-law burned her arm and declared that “I didn’t just get you here for my son, but also for my pleasure.” But the prosecutors never contacted her, and she now fears for her life. Asli’s story is all too common.

Turkey’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party is credited with making unprecedented reforms to protect women since it came to power in 2002. The laws are, however, spottily implemented. Single women, divorcees and wives taken in illegal Islamic marriages are not covered. Police often turn away victims on the grounds that “family unity must be preserved.” Hulya Gulbahar, a feminist lawyer, says that Turkey’s overtly pious prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has set the wrong tone. “His diatribes against divorce and calls for women to bear at least three children have made things worse,” she claims. Turkey lags in equality, ranking 126 among 134 countries in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index. Another study finds that women account for four-fifths of Turkey’s 5.7m illiterate people.

All this should provide fodder for the opposition in the run-up to a general election on June 12th. In fact, the rare talk of women in the campaign is mostly about footage posted on the internet showing candidates from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) secretly filmed in compromising situations. The good news is that the number of women elected to the 550-seat parliament is expected to double from the current 50 (9%). But Turkey will still be behind other Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan (28%) and the United Arab Emirates (23%).

The best news is that women are getting organised. Those battling to end restrictions on the headscarf are among the most vocal. Secular women support the campaign to force parties to accept female candidates who cover their heads. “No headscarves, no votes,” is their slogan. Although Mr Erdogan and most of his cabinet are married to veiled women, the AK has nominated only one similarly pious woman, for an unwinnable seat. Mr Erdogan’s excuse is that his party was nearly banned in 2008 because of its efforts to lift the headscarf ban. A pro-AK newspaper columnist, Ali Bulac, provoked fury when he suggested that veiled women were “spies” acting for secularists or were exploiting their plight to advance their careers. “You would rather have us stay at home and wash your socks,” riposted Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a (veiled) columnist at the forefront of the campaign. Will she vote for AK anyway? “Absolutely not,” she says.

By Stephanie Dahle, originally published on on May 9, 2011

Oman’s religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Al Khalili, recently issued a rare political statement in support of women candidates for the country’s parliment, called the Majlis al Shura.

“It would be wrong for voters to think women cannot use good judgement in the running of our affairs,” Sheikh Ahmed told The National.

Despite having a small population (about 3 million), this push for female empowerment has the potential to make a big impact in the country and region. Following protests that began in February 2011, Oman’s leader Sultan Qaboos Bin Said granted more legislative powers to the previously ceremonial parliament. The next election is slated to take place in October; currently there are 11 women and 500 men registered to run for 84 positions.While women have served in the Majlis al Shura in 2002 and 2005, there are no women presently represented.

Women in Oman enjoy a great deal of freedom. They are active in the workforce and the country’s only public university, Sultan Qaboos University, has consistently graduated more women then men. I’ve lived in Oman this past year and have felt free to be myself. I’ve spent countless hours studying at coffee shops, integrated into the local community and haven’t regularly worn a veil.

Oman’s attitude towards women is in contrast to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or travel without a permission from a male guardian.

Still, it doesn’t mean women in Saudi Arabia don’t fight for more rights. Last month, a group of women tried to register to vote. All but two of the women were “politely” declined.

“We want to make our voices heard,” Nayla Attar, one of the activists, told AFP.

I applaud the women who were brave enough to try to register to vote (and the NPR reporter that joined them). I have high hopes that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to vote like the citizens they are. And, here in Oman, I hope that– come October– women will once again serve on the Majlis al Shura.