Major underpass flooded at King Abdullah Road
  •  Major underpass flooded at King Abdullah Road
  • Pink Ribbon Guinnes World Record ( photo credit : Rania)

“Not allowed”he said.

“Who said?”I asked.

“The man in the khaki colored uniform” said my dad, with mild smile on his face.


My eyes popped out as I slowly lowered my camera. I looked across the street and saw a few ordinary men and gov.officials taking photographs of the area.

“Not allowed for me”I sighed

The police officer seemed like a young man in his early 20’s,perhaps a graduate, recently enrolled in police. He sounded both confused and assured at the same time. Assured because he had to stop a woman; confused because should he stop a women when men are openly doing the same thing. As a young woman,I could empathize with his perplexed state of mind,so I avoided arguing.

“It’s alright,”I said reassuringly.‘I am going to leave when I am done.”

I took a few more photographs while he stood there, looking even more confused.

With traffic malfunctioning on a dangerously busy road, his presence was far more important in regulating traffic than preventing me.

“Photography in public areas has been allowed in the country on 2006.” I said politely. “This is an underpass of an affluent area which has been flooded. As a team member of a social media disaster project, my duty is to document the area.”

He kept nodding,saying nothing and looking far more bewildered than a policeman should in an ideal law-enforcement situation.

I went back to the car, my dad’s car. He,as usual, had left his work to drive me. He drives me most of the time willingly,though sometimes,he wished women could drive or there was suitable transport for women.

As I walked across the road, I saw a myriad of eyes gaping at me. I overheard a group of men, exclaiming, “A women with a camera roaming on the street?!”

I kept walking…

Once men and women feared the devil, now men fear women in public space. More than the devil.

Behind the walls and inside the buildings – things are changing. But my country is still, officially conservative. With 27 million people,over 49 % women, nearly 70 % under the age of 30 – there are still spaces and spheres where women cannot be. As my country battles between tribalism, nationalism, globalization and religion, I do not know what role I could play when I am physically barred from so many physical spaces, when there’s limited space to debate or express ideas.

The Great Wall of Arabia: Gender Segregation or Seclusion?

Saudi Arabia’s pursues a gender segregation policy that prevents unrelated men and women ‘mixing’ in public space. This pursuit of gender segregation only serves to exclude women from mainstream public life altogether. The official version of ‘segregation’ does not reflect a correct interpretation of religious text nor does it reflect any historical resemblance of earlier Muslim communities of the country.

Princess Fatima ruled the province of Ha’il as an administrator from 1911 -1914,she graciously commanded the now demolished 300,000 sq meter Barzan Palace. She not only received foreign guests but allowed guests to photograph her as well.

Then why in the 21st century, is a woman with a camera considered as dangerous as an anarchist with a gun?!

In my country, stereotypical views about gender roles and identity are the leading factor in organizing a way of life, which perpetuates gender inequalities - frustrating and constraining women from doing anything that technically ‘breaks’ those notions. With very little exception, whether it is an authorized institutionalized sphere, quasi-public or leisure space, the moment she steps out, she has to walk through a barrage of ‘landmines erected to prevent her from deviating from restrictive gender roles.

There are libraries, museums and other public areas where women are barred legally or by social attitude. There are many women-only sections (banks, restaurants, government offices, stores) but very few of are exclusively operated by women, e.g. the first women-only hotel established in 2008, is operated solely by women. But it’s still men who decide where and how women only places should be created.

Some are occupied in excluding women from the public domain even if it contradicts religious teachings and practices. Some believe that a woman’s religious devotion and piety is demonstrated by the length of her abaya (cloak) and the duration of time she remains inside her home.Others believe the less if she abandons her abaya and the less she stays home shows her as progressive women. Nobody asks what she wants.

According to Global Gender Gap Report (2009) in “economic participation and opportunity” for women, my country ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries. However,women outnumber men in university and higher education. 95% working women are in the public sector: 85% in education - in both teaching and administrative positions,6% in public health and 4% in administration. From 1992 to 2010, women’s participation in the labour force almost tripled, but only 14.4% of women seeking a job are currently employed. As a result, many young, qualified women find jobs in neighboring countries.

Saudi labour law permits,"women to work in all fields suitable to their nature,” and forbids women to work at night or in “hazardous jobs or industries.”

It is more acceptable for women to plunge into poverty than work and earn a dignified living.

We rarely discuss justice or morality when a woman’s wealth is hijacked by her male guardians, unequivocally backed by legal courts,leaving her with no open doors except begging. There’s nothing moral about women with children begging in streets. Begging from men doesn’t count as ‘mixing’. Begging seems to suit her nature and it’s not socially ‘hazardous’.

“I believe a woman’s first and last place is at home. If she wishes to work, she can work from home. There’s no need to go out to claim equality with men. Men and women are equal. Segregation in public protects women’s dignity and prevents immorality”says Sarah, a mother of two.” Sarah’s statement reflects the commonly accepted definition of gender roles.

Yes,women do not need to go out to prove equality with men. But whether to stay home or step out - should be her choice. And as a society,our goal should be to aid her and not condemn her. What ‘protection of dignity’ do we intend to achieve when men sell women’s lingerie, jewelry, perfume and toiletries. In our strictly gendered-segregated society, men sell women’s undergarments!

“It’s extremely humiliating when a man asks your size in a condescending or flirty way” says Samira, 21. “I used to go lingerie shopping with my mom, but now when we go in all-girls groups, men slowly walk away. We create a big private space of our own!”

It is more acceptable for women to hire male drivers or ride in a taxi with ‘unrelated’ men in a confined space (car) than to drive a vehicle herself. It’s not about segregation but dis-empowering women. A woman behind the wheel is symbolic. It is synonymous with having enough power to make her traveling decisions. This worries some, and doesn’t please others.

The seclusion is extended into religious space as well. Many mosques do not designate a place for women worshipers. If they have, they are usually very poorly maintained. There are visible restrictions in the two holiest mosques in Madina and Makkah. As a female worshiper, I am constantly asked by security officers to finish my prayers quickly and ‘move aside’. Women struggle to pray peacefully in the small spaces dedicated for them. Walls erected in women’s areas prevent them from seeing the Imam or enjoying the splendid architecture of the holy mosques. There are time restrictions at other holy sites as well.

Are men’s prayers more needful than women’s? Did God say he listens to men’s prayers more than women’s?

Women do not lack wisdom to understand the implications of these policies. They may differ in formulating a solution but they’re increasingly challenging this seclusion in unconventional, new ways.

The Wireless Sidelining the Walls

“I tweet because I have no other way to express myself” writes one women using Twitter. “My lecturer gave me a low grade, from A to C, because what I wrote was deemed ‘Inappropriate’.” tweets another female university student. Someone tweeted her asking what she wrote about. “Women’s rights in my country“she tweets. I wrote her consoling tweet and suggested ways to solve the issue and encouraging her to talk calmly and rationally with her lecturer as well

The absence of physical platforms to discuss, debate and express ideas has led many people to dive into social networks and use social media. According to a recent report,Saudi Twitter users have increased by 240 % since the beginning of 2010.

The 2009 flooding of the major port city of Jeddah has been a watershed moment in social media and civic engagement history. Frustrated with government response and ineffectiveness, young women and men used social media tools to disseminate and consume information

Women are using social media to fight back for more space and participation as well,using the very same argument that secludes them:“to prevent gender mixing”.A woman initiated a Facebook campaign calling for women-only hospitals where all staff will be women. The proposition is now being discussed at government level. “Many feel too restricted in terms of expressing and getting real time discussions going on here. Limited forums and venues promoting expression of ideas begs for alternatives. However, operating almost underground, says Alisha, a spiritual poetess ‘Facebook doesn’t cut it. We need face-to-face interaction and to feel comfortable expressing ourselves”

A Journey Behind the Wall

I would like to evaluate our progress not in terms of GDP or the number of tall buildings we build but how we nurture our young and our women. People say my aspirations for my country are way too high because I want my country to be leader and not a follower in developing a society inclusive of women. It’s my country; shouldn’t I have high aspirations for my people?

There should be more women-only spaces operated by women,e.g police stations. Concurrently we need to encourage women’s participation in the mainstream, without being judged or feared. For this to happen we need to discuss proposals from ordinary people. For this to take place – we need more physical platforms. It’s all connected. As I clean my camera’s lenses, I reflect on the day when I felt exuberant, anxious, and thrilled to enter public venue for the first time, openly declared “only for men”.

Upon setting my feet inside,my scientist mind said: “explore!”So I pulled off a few blades of grass and tried to study. It was green,lush grass - well tended and watered. I never knew grass would marvel me!

The artist inside me asked to seize the moment. Politely submitting to her request, I laid on the grass, stretched out my two hands – stared at the pitch black sky with two shining bright stars!

I wondered why women can’t use public venues like stadiums more often. Why can’t we play football? In Saudi Arabia, women do not engage in any kind of sports. Most of us have never seen a sports facility. Except that day, when thousands of women stood shoulder-to-shoulder pledging to support breast cancer victims/survivors - vowing to raise awareness.

The event was marked in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the largest ever human chain in shape of a ‘Pink Ribbon’.Women were exclusively permitted to use the stadium for this event. Since this was the first such large event entirely organized by women,there were signs of disorganization and disagreement. Simultaneously, there were visible signs of empathy and unity. The mere presence of thousands of women from diverse communities showed that women can erase the walls of color, class and religion. It’s an example of how things can change, and when women come together in single platform - many things can change for greater good.

Saudi Arabia’s wealth does not lie beneath the soil, i.e. its oil. But above the surface, inside every home – It’s in our women. By harnessing the collective power of all women we can transform the consciousness of individuals and ultimately our private and public lives.

Sources : Princess Fatima Al Zamil (Fatima Mernissi’s book “The Forgotten Queens of Islam”)

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Frontline Journals.

Comment on this Post


Great job! And nicely illustrated with your photos. This is a powerful piece of writing raising many thought provoking points. Interesting title as well. All of the examples you chose build to make your point and all of them hang together so well. I'm looking forward to comments from the VOF sisterhood!

Hi my sister

II have enjoyed and sad while I was reading your article . I enjoyed it because of powerful writing. Your code 'Once men and women feared the devil, now men fear women in public space.' inspired me a lot. More than the devil. I was sad to know the situation of women there. Your country civilized earlier in history and there also was a very powerful Egyptian queen too. But it is really sad women women can’t use public venues . I am also sorry about flood in your city. I hope it will recover very soon.

Best Regards


Congratulations on Very Happy Teachers Day through ten years journey!

Thank you so much sis. Throughout my country’s history, we have taken two steps forward or one step back, or two steps back of one step forward. This is pretty much the case now, but things are slowly changing, and changing at different rates in different parts of the city. I may enjoy some benefits and freedom that rural women do not enjoy, at the same time, rural women may enjoy some benefits and freedom that city women do not enjoy. We are slowly recovering from the flood; many volunteers are participating to help the victims, including women. Even little change makes me happy! And we have to cease those moments and capitalize on that.

I really appreciate sister’s support from across the globe! I am really not alone ;-)

Hi again sister

I am so glad to hear the city recovery from he blood and collaborating of the community .To hear the steps you have been taken for the better change sound the light of hope and I expect more forwards . I hope to talk to you more sister.

Love NI NI

Congratulations on Very Happy Teachers Day through ten years journey!

Thank you for reading my piece ! sister….really appreciate your comments as a VOF graduate ;- )

Women in rural areas do drive, nobody says anything to them. In the constitution, there’s no law saying women cannot drive but there’s a ‘ban’ imposed. A lot of people fear if women were allowed to drive suddenly will lead to chaos in the street, which is a genuine concern. However, I believe people are ready to see women driving, there will be some disorder but if we continue to postpone, there will be more chaos!

Many middle-class women cannot go to work as they have to hire a driver and pay which is counterproductive. I think by allowing women to watch football in stadium for example, or allowing women to open more business in public areas will be the first step in making it normal for people to see women driving. There isn’t any suitable alternative public transport for women as well, so it’s more than just women driving a car herself.

The political unrest in the Middle East is worrying local leaders, and something tells me we will see drastic changes to please people. What I hope is that whatever happens, women and men are consulted in the process.

Hello there!

Yes Farona,like you say: It is more acceptable for women to plunge into poverty than work and earn a dignified living" The story is the same around here.

In Botswana, women legally have the same civil rights as men, but in practice societal discrimination persists. Botswana has a dual legal system with customary law existing side by side with common law. A number of traditional laws enforced by tribal structures and customary courts restrict women's property rights and economic opportunities, particularly in rural areas.

Thank God for Media, though i see there are still some restrictions in your country,limiting women to venture into new avenues.This piece is all worked,the laying of words is mouth watering.I believe with more effort by women who will unleash their potentials in your country things will work out Farona.Keep informing us Farona! The whole world is listening gal.

All the best and Cheers!


"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

Love your comments. Globally, women are stuck in similar conditions, be it legal or social. Interesting to know about

Botswana’s law…how are women trying to change that in your country? would love to know more ;-)

In my country, legally there are obstacles – even if law supports women, the judiciary system and the attitude prevailing there does not help any case involving discrimination against women. The legal guardianship system does prevent a lot of women from doing things, where men are ‘guardians’ of women for example a brother, father or husband. So technically women need permission to enrol in local university or travel aborad. Some men and women do not see this law as a problem because some women feel this law creates a sense of responsibility in men. But others subjected to denial of many opportunities by their male guardians see this law as a systematic ‘gender apartheid’.

There are many views and that’s why we want to discuss face-to-face, we need more platforms to debate ideas – social networks connects but it does not replace the need of having face-to-face, respectable conversation among various ideologies.

I wish we could change things from the bottom to top; changing social discriminatory views is not easy. Nice to have global sisters like you who are listening! I don’t know may be I am to idealistic, but I do believe in the power of global women’s collective voice !


Farona!!!! I love these two paragraphs:

"I would like to evaluate our progress not in terms of GDP or the number of tall buildings we build but how we nurture our young and our women. People say my aspirations for my country are way too high because I want my country to be leader and not a follower in developing a society inclusive of women. It’s my country; shouldn’t I have high aspirations for my people?" .... OF COURSE! IT'S YOUR COUNTRY, WHY SHOULDN'T YOU WANT AND WORK FOR THE BEST OF IT! .....and

"Saudi Arabia’s wealth does not lie beneath the soil, i.e. its oil. But above the surface, inside every home – It’s in our women. By harnessing the collective power of all women we can transform the consciousness of individuals and ultimately our private and public lives." ... WOW, I LOVE THIS!!! Wealth starts with women! This world can never find wealth if there were no women who continuously contribute to the welfare of humanity. WOMEN - WELFARE - WEALTH ... the cycle can never be reversed!

My sister has been working for over eight (8) years in Saudi Arabia ... and, yes, I know much of what you mean on this piece ... My salute, Farona ...

Always, Emie Zozobrado

Thank you sister! My heart felt happy!

Women should focus on improving both their private and public lives – it’s paramount! True empowerment only comes then. Yes! Let’s break the vicious cycle and unite on this victorious cycle of Women-Wealth-Welfare! Enough of our obsession with Oil!!!

It’s an honour to have your sister in my country ;- ) I hope she makes the most out of it !

With admiration and empathy ;- )

Dear Farona, Thank you for giving me insight into what life is like for a woman in your country. I admire your courage and that you manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective while suffering such oppression. I particularly liked that you were able to have empathy for the confused young man at the beginning! May the future bring you all that you have a right to demand! Vera

Dear Vera

Thank you so much for your thoughts ;- ) absolutely delighted to read

It's empathy and humor that keeps me focused, that enables me to explore stories from a different angle.

Dear sister Farona,

It is difficult to capture with words the high level of appreciation and impression I have for your post. It attracted me starting from the title. I love all the points you highlight and very supportive real ground examples. One of my favorite parts is using social media as a tool to make voices.

Your voice is of course so powerful. Your dream of woman participation in variety sectors of society is so sweet and I believe if Saudi have many woman like you, there is no doubt that you can reach the change one day definitely. I also love the way you present.

Really INSPIRING piece.

With Love, Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Wow ! sis I am humbled ;- ) I wish you could see the big smile on my face right now ;- ) It’s truly an honour to hear that from such an inspiring person herself ;- ) I feel you can fully understand the role of social media plays in closed societies; your country may use social media in a similar way, too.

Newspapers talk about the role of social media in a very cheesy way – but seriously, it’s slowly changing things in my country, in fact, social media itself does not create change but the way we are using it to create change. I will post a piece how we used social media in a disaster to help, to stir a conversation, others might find it useful.

The way we organizing our everyday life is frustrating for many, depression and suicide are on the rise – there’s a relation ! if only we could change few signs from the equations …. It’s support like yours from across the globe that keeps me incredibly motivated !

With admiration and love

Dear sister,

Do you know my country is one of the countries in highest rank in internet censorship and restriction?

We, especially the youths are struggling against those challenges and trying to make a voice about the reality here, in the country within the scope we are capable of.

Yes! It is a very useful and effective tool in our fighting against that unfairness.

I am very excited to read your post.

With Love, Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Dearest Farona,

Your post is very impressive and beautifully written. Congratulations for writing such an amazing journal despite all these floods and obstacles you were facing. I am proud of you dear sis.

Love. RA

Ruun ! Thank you so much sister - It's your prayers and good wishes that worked like charm ;- ) Thank you for reading this long piece ;- ) much appreciated..........

Much LOVE !!!


I just read your post, and wanted to express how grateful I am for the well-researched piece you shared with us! I appreciated all the research you did to contextualize and explain the points you made, and I was able to understand and join you in your call for a "real" kind of gender equity. Best of luck to you!


Thank you Marissa ;- ) I am humbled!

I felt it was important to contextualize in some way, albeit it is a subjective piece. Yes! It’s gender equity and the real kind, that I hope every women across the globe able to achieve. I appreciate your thoughts, glad you can join us in the call !

With kindness and joy

I had the pleasure of reading your story while traveling with the World Pulse team in East Africa. We were meeting with women leaders in Kenya and Rwanda who know the power of women in their countries to move human rights forward for all people. I feel that you are one heartbeat away from this same sense of potential to transform current realities. To name inequities if the first step. There is a saying that suggests the person who names the White Elephant (taboo subject) in the room holds the power to move the conversation along to the next level. I have no doubt that you move this conversation along just by who you are in the world. You inquire with the mind of a scientist and inspire with the touch of a poet. You document floods while flooding our hearts with the photo of the pink ribbon (women-constructed) in an open-air stadium, i.e. your piece moves from natural catastrophe (the flood) to human liberation (the pink ribbon.) Bravo, bravo. This piece, Farona, is a pure thrill to read. Thank you for the questions you put forth, for having the courage to reach for the camera, and for widening all of our lenses through your journalistic investigation.

Much Love, Maura

Maura Conlon-McIvor, Ph.D author, founder and social change psychologist celebrate life/tell your story/live your heart's legacy

Ah, I meant to say: "to name the inequities is the first step!"

Maura Conlon-McIvor, Ph.D author, founder and social change psychologist celebrate life/tell your story/live your heart's legacy

Ahh…Its privilege to read such an encouraging feedback from an author and journalist herself ;- ) ….I had fun composing this piece, despite the obvious challenges encountered throughout the process. I couldn’t have done it without the support !

I conversed with many people while writing this piece, both in real life and online – and I was amazed to hear so many views, most of them were intrigued by this angle to explore issues.

The whole experience was very humbling and heartening!

Look forward to my next piece

Much Love !

I read every word of your article with interest. I was thrilled to see the pink ribbon formed by your country women at the end of the article. Sometimes it is hard to read articles that express difficult challenges without offering any hope. You clearly articulate the challenges AND offer hope. I feel more empowered myself after reading about your willingness to take your camera into the street and to lie down in the grass and enjoy the moment of freedom in the stadium.

Thank you for your words.


Thank you so much for thoughts, Debra ! your words motivated me !

Of course there are challenges, but there are opportunities to change as well. It's really about ceasing the moment and reflect. I have access to opportunities that others don't - I feel it's my responsibility to make those opportunities available to everyone. I have learned to organize my life along the lines of opportunities ;- )

Despite the challenges not every women experience the same challenges as I do, not every women feel the same way as I do - the wishes and aspirations of women in my country are not homogeneous. Neither do I represent the concerns of every single women ! the piece is really written from a personal perspective and feelings

Sometimes int'l media stories talk about women in Saudi Arabia as if women belong to some sort of homogeneous group. And that really doesn't have solving the fundamental concerns. That's why I love being a part of VOF ! it let us talk about issues also forces us to think about solutions

Best Wishes

You have done an amazing job here Sahar, of talking about an amazingly important issue. I think that right now is exactly the right time to be talking as well--with all the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, what better time to ensure that women's participation is the subject of scrutiny and discussion?

There are too many lines to count in your story that I love, but a few are:

" men and women feared the devil, now men fear women in public space. More than the devil. " and

"It is more acceptable for women to plunge into poverty than work and earn a dignified living. ". Great lines!

I also really like the fact that you say that women's devotion is measured by the length of her abaya and the time she remains inside her home, and yet you are forced to leave the mosque quickly or are not given space to pray easily. It brings the point home that the barriers women face in Saudi are much more cultural than religious!

Keep up the great work!


"Tell me then, what will you do with your one wild, sweet, and precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Thank you so much, Rachael!

These are really interesting times, I am so glad it’s happening in my lifetime!

If we don’t talk now, I am afraid we’ll lose another decade. It really means so much to me.

I was thrilled to know UN women dedicated their second day to talk about women in the Arab world and the revolutions. The conversation was engaging and enlightening. Using their twitter account they asked audience worldwide to post their questions, and they selected few questions. I was really happy when they read out my question ;- ) Retweeted my suggestions!

The problem women faces are really cultural and traditional as opposed to exclusively religious. Ask any women in my country, their answer would “it’s all has to do with the culture”!

People just don’t want others to use religious texts to benefit a few. That’s really an issue, here.

For example, the widely quoted Hadith or Prophet’s (SAS) saying that women cannot lead a nation is contested one, and taken out of context! He was referring to a particular women at a particular time, ( a daughter of a perceived enemy ) – there are so many contested Hadith, but since it’s widely held nobody bothers to challenge them. We all know that widely held contested things benefit men more than women, or collectively!

We really need more women religious scholars, the only way to disarm religious usage of texts for personal benefit is to dispel them via religion. Unfortunately, very few women scholars are vocal in much of the Middle East.

Women who face less cultural and traditional barriers prosper than other women- they have access to far more opportunities than women who face barriers. Unit of families can really play a good role here, if my family rejected my opinion or my different views – I would feel really helpless and hopeless. It’s different in my family, my parents ask me for my political views, and they always ask me ‘what’s my assessment’. From a very young age, I was encouraged to think for myself but simultaneously take decisions in a consultative process. It’s only when I grew up, I realized not many women or girls have that conducive environment at home.

Ah it’s nice to know you liked so many lines, and to be candid, I really didn’t put much thought in each of those lines, I just kept writing…

Much Love ;- )