A much feted highway connecting the Eastern Province to the Western one had been completed that year and my father jumped at the opportunity to introduce us to his home in Medina. It would be a thought-provoking journey, as we confronted an integral part of our identity that we had not yet been exposed to… This was 1967; the excesses brought about by the petrol dollar were not yet visible under the budget-conscious King Faysal…
…There wasn’t much to stare at from the window, so all four of us fell asleep while we waited.
Suddenly I felt the sharp end of a stick poking my side. I opened my eyes to stare at close range into the crazed eyes of a muttawa’a whose head was well into our car screaming, “Cover your head woman! Cover your head you sinner you!” My sister and I screamed back, “Get out of here you rude man! Leave us alone!” Fortunately, for all concerned, my parents returned at this very moment. I was shocked to hear the placating humble tone of voice my father used with the muttawa’a. “There is no other way,” he told me as we drove off with the old man still raining curses on us. “The alternative would be to get hauled into the police station.”
I felt deeply insulted. A sense akin to being violated shook my whole body. Who was this creepy old pervert and what right did he have to bully us into the submission I had just seen my father displaying? I was ashamed of my father’s reaction and ashamed that we had not been able to get even…
…This part of Arabia was a radically different Arabia from the one I knew in Aramco.
I befriended the younger members of our family who were my age, two of whom were already married. The son of our host, Khaled, was seventeen and his wife, Arwa, also a cousin, was fourteen and they already had a baby daughter, a cherubic newborn named Zalfa. They would sit for hours with the rest of the cousins to hear about our lives in Dhahran. What they were keen to learn about was not the mixed classes we attended nor what living with Americans was like, but rather how our classrooms were designed, which books we read, what our teachers taught us and how they taught us.
The boys told us of their studies in the Medina schools. The curriculum included the Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran through rote memorization, math, selective history (the Al Sa’ud version), and selective science (carefully sidestepping Darwin and the human body). Al deen (religion) formed the core curriculum of their studies and students could not receive their Tawjihieh diploma that enabled them to go on to higher studies if they did not pass al-Tawhid (Unitarian dogma), which comprised details more intricate than a book on law.
The young people in Medina regarded their religion with fear rather than comfort. I looked into the young faces that longed to learn about the world outside of Wahhabi theology and I realized that sheer circumstance had put me where I was and not where they were. Marwan would pose the only glitch during our visit to Medina. With each day of our week-long stay, he became more and more unbearable as the notion of men’s privilege over women began to go to his eleven-year-old head. Even my mother voiced her annoyance, which was quite exceptional as Marwan in her view could do no wrong. On the fourth day of our stay, as we were preparing to leave the house to visit more cousins, Marwan strutted in imperiously and gave us an order to speed it up, the men were waiting. He also used the word hurma (protected one), a dismissive word for woman in our view. As if on cue, Fatin and I pounced on him with pent-up fury and we didn’t release him until he cried. That snapped him out of his illusions of superiority.
I was packing my things in preparation for our departure later in the day when Arwa whispered urgently in my ear to come into her room. She wanted to tell me something in private and took advantage of the prayer time when the adults were otherwise occupied. I walked in with a beating heart not knowing what to expect, there had been so much urgency in her voice. In the room was her husband who immediately went to the door, locked it and remained standing to make sure we were not intruded upon. She opened a drawer and pulled out a reading book for elementary students, whispering proudly, “I’m learning to read and write.” I didn’t understand.
Her husband stepped in. “I smuggled these books in for Arwa because I feel it is wrong for her not to be educated. If my father found out he would force me to divorce her immediately because he has been taught to believe it’s sinful to educate women. I love Arwa dearly and would never be able to live with anyone else, but my father is the law in this house.” He paused, looking behind his shoulders edgily and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I know I am taking a risk but I will educate my wife and I will educate my daughter. We wanted to have a chance in private to thank you for your support and enthusiasm about learning. You are decent, and it proves that education is not the work of the devil for women, as some sheikhs like to say. I am a devout Muslim and I have read in the Koran about the importance of education, and look at all the quotes I have collected to support my argument in case my father discovers what Arwa is doing. So my conscience is clear.”
And he began to read the passages he had so earnestly compiled to bolster his conscience in this daring step he had taken with his wife.
“Striving after knowledge is a most sacred duty for every Muslim man and woman.” … “The ink of the scholars is more precious than the blood of the martyrs” … “Islam directs all energies toward conscious thought as the only means of understanding the nature of God’s creation and thus his will.” … “The superiority of the learned over the more pious is like the superiority of the moon when it is full over the stars.” … “If anybody proceeds on his way in search of knowledge, God will make the way to paradise easy.” … “The scientist walks in the path of God.”
I felt proud to be related to these devout young Saudis possessing such courage and such integrity. I promised myself that I would do all that was in my power with my education to overturn the appalling marginalization of the Saudi Arabian woman. (Brownies and Kalashnikovs, p.87-89)
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