Layla of Arabia

Dec. 14, 2009

‘I am writing from the other side of the ocean to inform you that after my graduation I won’t be returning” wrote Saudi student Layla (a pseudonym) to her family, in a letter published in the Saudi newspaper Okaz.

“I’ve been freed from my apprehensions and dismays and enjoy being separated from the [Middle] Eastern man; do I surprise you with the audacity to stop keeping tribal customs?”

Her voice, the voice of a free woman in an adopted country, joins a growing group of brave Saudi women activists who dare to dissent against one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Layla describes her journey through literature that focused on a question seemingly trivial to readers on this side of the ocean: What value, if any, do I have in this world as a woman? Books banned in her native Saudi Arabia helped provide her with some answers. Al-Neehum, a Libyan exile and critic of Arab culture, was adopted to be Layla’s first teacher: “Equality between men and women is impossible in any society that doesn’t allow for equal earning opportunities,” he wrote. “Arab society adopts a predetermined system where the man’s earning power is independent of the woman, while a woman’s earning power is dependent on the man.”

Layla continued to read. She learned about women activists in India, and in particular, Eeya Maya Schult, a Finnish woman who traveled to rural India to help educate women. She discovered feminism and “Yes, she can.” She ends her letter saying that “if the day comes when I see men liberated from the idea that all women past adolescence must be held in captivity, maybe I will return along with my newfound freedom.”

THAT DAY, however, is far off. “Women” and “rights” are two separate concepts in the Land of the Sacred Mosques. Women are not allowed to drive, to walk freely without a male relative, to enter a public building via the men’s entrance or to speak with an unveiled face outside her home. Although women constitute 70 percent of those enrolled in Saudi universities, they make up just 5.5% of the country’s workforce.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch just published an urgent call asking Riyadh to cease applying capital punishment to witches: “Saudi judges have harshly punished confessed ‘witches’ for what at worst appears to be false advertising of their professions, but may well be harmless acts,” HRW said.

Fawza Falih, an illiterate woman who was detained by the religious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read, is appealing a death sentence. Among her accusers was a man alleging she made him impotent.

The Saudi regime continues to prosecute women for various other “crimes.” This year, a Saudi court sentenced 75-year-old Khamisa Sawadi to 40 lashes and four months imprisonment for having two “unrelated men” in her house. The first “unrelated” was breast-fed in his infancy by Khamisa. The other helped his friend to bring food for the elderly lady.

Just last month, Saudi journalist Rosanna al-Yami was sentenced to 60 lashes and a two-year travel ban for reporting on a man’s boasting about his sex life on an Arabic-language TV show dedicated to discussing social taboos. The attorney of the accused man believes Rosanna is the first Saudi writer ever to be convicted for covering a “controversial story.”

Despite the intolerant social climate, Saudi activists – especially women – have raised their voices. A women’s movement led by Wajeha al-Huwaider have initiated the “Black Ribbons Campaign,” petitioning the state to grant women the right to drive. Huwaider purposefully launched the campaign on the 19th anniversary of the day 40 brave Saudi women publicly drove in the nation’s capital, Riyadh. Those women were detained and fired from their jobs – and their passports taken – but their hopes have overcome government intimidation.

Perhaps they could find some comfort in a new Saudi experiment at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. In this large, fenced-in campus (occupying some 50 square miles) women don’t have to cover their entire body and are allowed to drive within the university grounds. It’s a small step, and certainly not enough to convince Layla.

Layla is not the first Saudi woman to publicize her liberation from “the curses of the Eastern men” and she will certainly not be the last. A society in which “the Arab man has devised the culture, and the woman doesn’t participate in it” is doomed to permanent stagnation and to create countless more discontented Laylas.

As millions of Muslim men freely gather in their spiritual homeland for the haj pilgrimage, there is no better time to support the courageous women of that same land.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Noam Ivri is a researcher at

2 thoughts on “Layla of Arabia

  1. thank you for giving attention to women’s rights in the Arab culture. living in Switzerland, one can too easily forget that women rights are still so far from being achieved in the Middle East, and wider, unfortunately. the world in general, would be in a much better state with equal opportunities for women. that fact bears special weight in the Middle East.

    looks like it is men who need liberation from their idiotic ideas.!

  2. So sad that men are so repressed and insecure, because of a religion, that they have to repress others.
    Just like the schoolboy with low self-esteem bullying weaker children.

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