Recently a website asked me to write about my experience as “a woman living in Saudi Arabia”. Because God forbid I ever forget. 

I wrote that Saudi Arabia makes me feel like a precious jewel. I didn’t say that with vanity. I was trying to explain how being wrapped in the folds of an abaya is akin to being cushioned in the velvety base of a jewelry box, protected and cherished.  I wrote about the security I had taken for granted growing up in a Muslim country but now had a newfound appreciation for. I said it felt good to live here.

Could you tell this isn’t what they wanted to hear?

I received a response saying that they “wouldn’t feel right publishing this because it posed a conflict” as my depiction of this country goes against things they’ve heard. 

Heard in countries where people laugh and meet in the streets like they don’t have a care in the world? But certainly seem to care when a woman covered in abaya walks by. When a man who looks “middle eastern” is around, or when someone sneezes and by automatic instinct, you say “Alhamdulillah” instead of the more popular term, of literally the same meaning, “bless you”, they seem uneasy.

But on the streets of Jeddah, I feel the call to prayer echo in my veins. 

If you are bothered by the smell of fragrant Oud in marketplaces, this isn’t the place for you

If you’re not prepared to let the aroma of sheesha envelop you at Obhur, while children laugh and call to each other from camel-back and Arabic pop music blares from lavish sports cars, this clearly isn’t the place for you.  

If you’re uncomfortable at the sight of abaya-clad women and men dressed in sharp white thobes leaving the scent of Arabic perfume lingering on the street as they flock to the mosque for Friday prayer, swathed in a feeling of piety and devotedness so strong they almost levitate, this really isn’t the place for you. 

If you’re offended that there are women with an amazing sense of style who will wear the most daring outfits around each other and absolutely none of it, will ever be glimpsed by men who aren’t their familiars, this definitely isn’t the place for you

But it has always been a place for me. 

You sit on the other side of your laptop and television screens and talk about “freedom”, when it was right here that I felt the security to confidently follow my religion without the fear of being labeled a “terrorist”. 

Did I disappoint you by not writing a hate-piece in which I bash the country and lament how “oppressed” I am living in Saudi Arabia? Did I not adhere to all the hard work the media puts into painting the Middle East as a repressive place, with suppressed Muslim women that are shackled by their beliefs and the laws of an unfair Islamic country?

How did Disney like to put it? “Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face…it’s barbaric but hey it’s home”? (they had to clean it up recently to avoid angering audiences)

Agrabah…oh Agrabah…the damage you’ve done.

You still think this country is just sand and heat and oppression don’t you? 

What do you know of the liberties of being Muslim in an Islamic country? Whenever certain aspects of female modesty are a given arrangement, every time giving women their own space is an automatic norm, when the month of Ramadan comes around and it’s understood that it’s about much more than ‘fasting during daylight hours’, you don’t stop being a Muslim when the sun goes down, that Ramadan is rewarding and it’s a blessing, not having to be worried about finding Halal (Islamically permitted food) all the time because it’s more than just not consuming pork and alcohol, it’s a whole different ball game, and no I won’t just “have a drink” to loosen up, that it isn’t personal, it’s spiritual.

And absolutely none of it makes me feel oppressed. It solidifies my identity. 

Despite this country’s problems (it has plenty of those I can’t deny), there is a reason that the city of Makkah, and its westernized name Mecca became synonymous with meaning promised land. 

Living in Saudi Arabia sheltered me from Islamophobia, it meant that my values as a Muslim were unquestioned. I didn’t have to feel like I had to defend them.

In part of my rejected article, I said “There is no such thing as the perfect Muslim or the perfect country. There may be no perfect religion.  But I know exactly who I am and what I choose to believe. I have no doubts, and I am perfectly happy”.  I admit that this country isn’t perfect and neither am I.

But you asked me to write about my personal experiences and then told me it’s problematic because it doesn’t fit your narrative. Problematic because of claims that Saudi Arabia only allowed women to drive recently and there are guardianship laws here. I never argued that, I didn’t even mention it. I was pretty careful about choosing my subjects, keeping them religious. And it still didn’t fit their agenda.

So what was their agenda? This website claims to be all about feminism and giving women a voice, encouraging women to speak up freely, giving them a place to be heard. As long as what that woman is saying fits their narrative. The typical “Islam is oppressive and Saudi Arabia is a tyrannical country that is stifling its women.  Look at how unhappy Muslim women really are” story. 

That’s probably why the submission I sent was basically a rosy-hued love letter to this country. Because it would bother them and then the hypocrisy of their selective feminism would show. 

Nobody wants to hear about a woman living in Saudi Arabia and liking it. How dare she?

Let me tell you how. From the very get-go, I saw the intention of the offer that was presented to me and refused to be a part of it.  I’m not blind, I know this place has its flaws just like anywhere else. But you can find hundreds of agenda-pushing writers out there who are going to be more than happy to fulfill your needs for some clout. You don’t even need a genie in a lamp to find one. However, this one refuses to be a part of it. 

I’ve lived here. I’ve loved it here and hated it here. It may not be Agrabah, but hey, it’s home.

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  • Mehvish Irshad

    Mehvish Irshad is a writer and artist with a MA in Creative Writing from Brunel University in London and a BBA from Heriot Watt University in Dubai. She loves reading books and graphic novels and reviews books she has read, as well as working on a graphic novel series of her own.

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