Swimming against the tide



Sabria S. Jawhar

Published — Thursday 31 October 2013

Last update 31 October 2013 12:19 am

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About 10 years ago in Madinah there was a 16-year-old girl who flourished in high school. Teachers and administrators regarded her as one of the top students in the city.
For a class assignment she wrote an essay to demonstrate her writing skills, thought process and how to make an argument on a specific topic. She chose corruption. She wrote eloquently and persuasively. In all respects it was masterful writing for a teenager. Her teachers and school administrators responded by failing her in all of her classes and expelling her from school. They said she lacked patriotism. Her parents, who were well-known intellectuals in Madinah, took her to the West where she received an education. I don’t know what happened to her. But I do know that wherever she is, that having her in their lives enriches her employers and colleagues, or university professors and fellow students. Today, of course, the Saudi government has established anti-corruption commissions and encourages Saudis to report corruption at any level. The girl was well ahead of her time, but I doubt that the individuals responsible for her expulsion feel even a remote sense of guilt for their conduct.
Little has changed in the past decade. Today’s young women who speak their minds are ostracized and shamed. Saudi society demands that we swim with the flow and anybody caught swimming against the tide, whether or not they have valid concerns about their rights, should be punished.
Yet the new generation of young Saudi women doesn’t seem to care much.
Loujain Hathloul is a good example. Loujain is a young Saudi woman in her early to mid 20s. She gained the attention of conservatives by uploading videos to YouTube and Keek discussing Saudi social issues, such as women driving and women’s rights. She has nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter. She wears no hijab and speaks in a relaxed local accent, and always with a smile. She knows her audience and speaks directly to them. Some of her audiences are the conservatives who prefer their women not to be seen and not heard. And with each issue she addresses with her smile and soft voice, she is relentlessly attacked. Commentators on her social media sites accuse her of fitna, demand that she return to Saudi Arabia and insult her appearance.
Many commentators suggest that she be sexually assaulted. The hashtag #arrestloujain has appeared. However, not a single critic has ever responded to the topic she discusses. I had been subjected to the same attacks as Loujain and it was devastating to me. My family was appalled at the disgusting comments about my looks and morality. Loujain, who is apparently more resilient than I, always takes the high road and never stoops to their level. Her response goes something like this, and I am paraphrasing: Please forgive me for posting this clip and I know it will irritate a lot of you. Allow me to say you are a fragile society. How come a girl or a very young woman like me irritates a whole society and you react the way you do. The whole society is excited to react to my YouTube and forgets the issues facing our country. Why not focus your reaction to poverty in the country and the injustices?
She appears not to censor comments, and she never replies directly to them.
I don’t agree with everything Loujain says, but her ideas are progressive in a society like ours. I won’t judge her either. She might get her message across more effectively if she wore the hijab, but it’s telling that we as a society refuse to address sensitive social issues and instead rather focus on appearances. Swim against the tide, even if it’s in a dirty pond, has its consequences. Loujain is expressing her right to have an opinion. She presents these opinions in simple, short and straightforward video clips to people of her generation that are not interested in long speeches and long newspaper articles. This is the new generation of Saudi women. They are fearless. The old rules don’t apply to them. They won’t be cowed by haters who don’t have the intelligence to counter her arguments with their own. Loujain recently drove the family car from the Riyadh airport to her home. Her father was in the passenger seat videotaping her and commenting on her driving. The family’s tribal chief issued a statement disowning Loujain and her father for driving the car. I wonder if the chief disowned the men in his tribe who were convicted of committing crimes or had done illegal deeds? I think not. Ten years from now when Saudi women driving all over the Kingdom is no longer a novelty, will the tribal chief look back on his decision with regret? Like the 16-year-old Madinah girl expelled from school for writing an anti-corruption essay, it will take Saudis a decade to understand that Loujain, and women like her, was ahead of her time. And we will look back with embarrassment that Saudi society treated her this way.

Email: sabria_j@hotmai[email protected]

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