Friday, July 3, 2015

From the Kitchen to the Podium


by Rayeesa Tabassum

This year, our city, Jeddah, had the privilege of hosting the Saudi Arabian Toastmasters Annual Conference: SATAC 2015.  It was a grand affair, bringing together the best speaking talents from all over the country. Abdullah Al Jurfi emerged as the winner in International Speech Category. He will go on to represent Saudi Arabia at Toastmasters International Convention in Las Vegas, in August, to win the coveted title of  “The World Champion of Public Speaking.”

Jeddah Elite ladies toastmasters pose with their trophies at their club contest.

Saudi Arabia is also called district 79 and boasts of over 200 clubs, including Arabic, English and other languages too. There are approximately 40 clubs in Jeddah alone. Among them are corporate as well as community clubs and a few exclusive ladies clubs too. Jeddah Elite ladies toastmasters club prides in being the first ladies only club in the city and has been instrumental in bringing women from the kitchen to the podium. 

Founded by Shanti Lakshman, an experienced toastmaster, in June 2013, it won the prestigious president distinguished club award in the very first year of its formation. This year too, the club shone in the division level conference with its members winning 2nd prize in each of table topics, humorous speech and evaluation contests. 

Ladies from different countries and professions meet on alternate Thursdays, in Aziziyah, to improve their communication and leadership skills. A general meeting has three components: Prepared Speeches, Evaluations and Table topics.  In the first session, members present prepared speeches based on the projects from “Competent Communication Manual” provided by Toastmasters International. Each speaker is assigned an evaluator, who provides constructive and helpful feedback to the speaker to improve her speech. 

In table topics, a “topic” is given on the spot and members are required to speak about it for 2-3 minutes.  At every meeting, members take up different leadership roles such as Toastmaster of the Evening, Table Topics Master, General Evaluator, Grammarian, Timer and Ah Counter. The whole educational session enables members to improve various skills like impromptu speaking, listening, evaluation, providing feedback, organizing and time management.

Jeddah Elite ladies club has made stars out of homemakers. Members with English as their second language have used this platform to gain confidence in their spoken English skills. TM Ajitha Saleem, a non-native English speaker, began her journey of Toastmasters, with table topics speech in her mother tongue. In just one year, she has transformed from hesitant, nervous speaker to humorous speech champion.  

At Jeddah Elite Ladies Toastmaster meetings, learning takes place in a fun, comfortable setting. Ladies in Jeddah who are interested are welcome to attend a meeting to get a first hand experience of toastmasters.  To find out more information, please use any of these ways to contact Jeddah Elite Ladies Toastmasters:  

Twitter        :  @jedeliteladies_
Email          :
Facebook   :   JeddahEliteLadiesTM

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia

I had read the following article back when it first appeared on Muftah in March 2014 and should have shared it with you back then.  But I just reread this piece again and felt compelled to share it this time.  Written by Bayan Perazzo, a young Saudi-American university instructor who is also a PhD candidate in International Law and Human Rights.  Like many young Saudi women, Bayan is well educated and well-traveled - and she wants more out of life for herself and her daughter.  I had featured another article written by Bayan last year called "Why I Refuse to Celebrate Saudi National Day" - another very powerful essay about problems in this society.

The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia
By Bayan Perazzo

In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.”  Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country   are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.

Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.

I never thought much about my gender identity until I moved back to Saudi Arabia as a young adult. Small instances of gender discrimination would take place last year regularly, but at some point in time those experiences built up to leave me feeling something I had never felt before: that being female is an absolutely exhausting burden to bear.

What exactly were these small everyday events that pushed me over the edge?

Perhaps it was the time I was lost in Riyadh and asked a man who passed me on the street for help with directions, and he looked at me in disgust, replied with a “tisk tisk” and an “astughfurallah” (a phrase often muttered when someone finds something sinful), and continued walking. He did not want to speak to a woman.

Or perhaps it was one of the many instances while flying domestically with Saudi Arabian Airlines, when the stewardess would come to me in my assigned seat during boarding and tell me to move because there was a man in the assigned seat next to me who did not want to sit next to a woman.

Perhaps it was the muttawa (“religious” man) who was screaming at me from across the room in an airport to cover my face and fear the end of the world that pushed me over the edge. Or maybe it was the man who witnessed this indignity and followed me when I went to complain to airport authorities in order to tell me to “calm down and not make a big deal out of it.”

Perhaps it was the countless men who assumed that since I was out in public on my own I clearly was asking to be sexually harassed. Or the young men who shamelessly threw their phone numbers at me, or followed me in their cars for long-periods of time despite my obvious lack of interest.  Or maybe it was the numerous times when these sexual-harassment car-chases became reckless and almost ended in accidents.

Perhaps it was during the two-hour argument I had with the sheikh who was performing my marriage ceremony. My husband and I had already agreed to put conditions in the marriage contract so that he could not take any other wives besides me. Right before my eyes, the sheikh tried his best to convince my husband this was not a good idea, and he should leave himself the option of entering into other marriages.  Or perhaps it was after acquiescing and including the condition in our marriage contract, that instead of giving us his best wishes, the sheikh expressed doubt about the future success of our marriage.

Maybe it was the man who was showing my husband and I a house for sale in Riyadh, who thought it was funny to make a joke right in front of me about my husband getting another wife. Or maybe it was that while showing us the kitchen he told my husband “how nice I would look cooking” there.

Perhaps it was the man who was smoking a cigarette in Jeddah, who came over to me as I lit up my own cigarette, took it from my hands, and threw it on the ground, telling me that women’s bodies could not handle smoking the way men’s bodies could.

Maybe it is the fact I am prohibited from driving a car because of my gender, despite having a valid license for over 11 years without an accident or even a ticket with experience driving in the rain, in the snow, in the desert, in extreme fog, and in multiple countries – even here in Saudi.

Perhaps it is the hours of my life that have been casually wasted away while waiting for a man to give me a ride somewhere.

It could also be the fact I have gotten more unwanted attention in Saudi while covering my head and entire body with an abaya, than I ever received while wearing a bikini in many Western countries.

Maybe it was the work meetings I was left out of about my future career at the university in Al-Khobar while the male administrators (who had never met or worked with me) were left to make decisions about my job without giving me a chance to speak to them or present my case.

These are just a few of the things that have happened nearly every time I step out of my house and into the streets of Saudi Arabia. The days I return home without being disrespected because of my gender are beautiful but extremely rare. Over time, these experiences have made it more and more difficult for me to step out of the comfort of my own home, even though as my true self, I cannot bear staying inside.

For a while, I had the courage to push back against all this, but for now, I must shamefully admit, I have been defeated.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Message To All Collectors of Censored Music CDs

Since I first wrote about a censored Katy Perry music CD that I had purchased for my son in March 2009, I have received dozens of requests from total strangers around the world asking me to acquire Saudi censored CDs for them.  I had politely declined until Marco from Italy emailed me no less than 18 times over a period of a couple months, literally begging me to help him acquire a censored Britney Spears CD from here in Saudi Arabia.  Any Britney Spears CD would do, he said, as long as it was censored.  Against my better judgment, I finally told Marco that I would try since he was so persistent and had seemed so desperate and sincere.

I had told Marco that it wouldn't be easy for me to get down to a record shop in the first place, since women can't drive here in KSA and I don't have a driver.  The few record shops that I know of aren't exactly within walking distance either.  I also told him I wasn't going to make a special trip just to get him a CD and that I wasn't making any promises. 

Marco had told me that he was a "collector."  Several weeks after he initially asked me, I happened to be in the same mall as a record shop, so I decided to go in there and see if I could find what he wanted.  I found one Britney Spears CD that had been censored - it was censored with a red marker painted over her exposed skin.  The CD cost me 60 Saudi Riyals, which is about $16 US.  When I got home, I immediately emailed Marco with the good news and asked him for his address so I could figure out how much the shipping would cost.

He seemed excited and asked if I could send him a photo of the CD, so I did.  And then ... after weeks of bugging me in 18 different emails about getting him a Britney Spears CD ... there was nothing but silence from Marco.  So I emailed him again.  I was miffed that he had not answered me after a few days or sent me his address.  And now I had laid out my own money for a CD that I would have never bought in the first place (sorry, Britney!) and there was only a three day return policy at the store.  And if I needed to return it, I would have to arrange for transportation to make another trip back to the store.  I was not happy!  I was feeling duped and felt I had been taken advantage of.

Three days later, I heard back from Marco:  "I'm so sorry but the CD isn't official with write pen on it.  I have this CD.  I'm so sorry."

I was fuming!  What kind of a person imposes on a total stranger who lives in another country where women cannot drive and convinces her to make a purchase of an item she would never ever buy - and then says "I already have it?"  "Not Official?" Are you %@#*$^% kidding me?  I write a blog about living in Saudi Arabia.  I don't make any money off of it.  And I certainly don't operate a business in which I go on wild goose chases to fulfill stupid people's wishes. If Marco had even the slightest modicum of decency at all, knowing all the trouble I had gone through to get that stupid CD for him (sorry again, Britney!), he should have just kept his stupid mouth shut and graciously paid me for the merchandise he requested.

So, to all you "Collectors" out there who keep writing to ask me to get some certain artist's censored CD from Saudi Arabia, please stop.  The answer is NO!  And you have Marco the Inconsiderate Idiot A$$hole to thank for it.  And besides, according to Marco, the Saudi method of censorship with marking pens isn't "official" anyway!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My InterNations Interview

InterNations is a great tool and support system for expats around the world.  With communities in almost 400 cities worldwide, InterNations provides a way for people working in foreign countries to socialize and network.  It also provides information useful for living in and adapting to another country. 

I am the featured blogger on InterNations this month.  CLICK HERE to read my interview.  I hope you enjoy it!
Susie of Arabia (Photo Credit: Blue Abaya)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Art Rehab Therapy for Convicted Terrorists

I wanted to share this encouraging story with you that I read on NPR about a successful rehabilitation program for convicted terrorists in Saudi Arabia. 

Treating Saudi Arabian Jihadists With Art Therapy

by Deborah Amos / NPR

Dr. Awad Al-Yami, an art therapist trained at the University of
Pennsylvania, is a counselor at a Saudi Arabian center
that seeks to rehabilitate convicted terrorists.
The center claims a success rate of more than 80 percent,
but acknowledges that some return to extremist groups like al-Qaida.
Deborah Amos/NPR

There are golf carts and palm trees and an Olympic-sized pool at the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh.

Once a holiday resort, the walled compound still looks like one — and not a rehabilitation center for convicted terrorists.

In the past year, the country has expanded counter-terrorism laws that make it illegal for Saudis to fight in Syria and Iraq. The kingdom has also expanded the terrorism rehab centers.

More than 3,000 young Saudi men graduated from the program since it began in 2008, including 120 former prisoners from a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The centers only work with inmates not convicted for violent crimes. The Saudis claim a success rate of more than 80 percent of the detainees returning to their families as well-adjusted members of Saudi society.

On my visit, the inmates are kept out of sight, except for a handpicked star graduate, 29-year-old Badr al-Anzi. Two years ago, he was set to join the militants of the self-declared Islamic State. Now he's a model of rehabilitation.

"I wanted to go to jihad," explains al-Anzi, who has a wife and three daughters. His plan was to travel to Syria with his cousin and brother, but he was arrested when he tried to pick up his passport at a government office.

After a six-month jail sentence, al-Anzi was sent to the rehab center. His treatment was intense, with psychological counseling, religious re-education, vocational training, plus financial incentives. Al-Anzi now attends college on a scholarship. He had help finding a job.

Many inmates draw pictures of castles. Al-Yami, the art therapist,
interprets them to mean, "I'm not going to give you any information.
I'm behind the wall and you can't get through."
Deb Amos / NPR
He makes monthly visits to the center to counsel others.

"Now, I want to fight ISIS," he says, which he does on Twitter, challenging Saudi recruits to quit and come home.

Al-Anzi's was an easy case. He never made it to the battlefield. But what about the hardened cases, the al-Qaida extremists?

"They're not so tough," says Dr. Awad Al-Yami, a counselor here. "These are our kids, and anyway, they are members of our society, and they are hurting us. We feel obligated to help them."

Al-Yami trained as an art therapist at the University of Pennsylvania. He pioneered an innovative program that's unusual in Saudi's ultra-conservative culture, where some clerics say that drawing is forbidden.

"I had a hard time convincing my people with art, let alone art therapy for jihadists," he says.

But the program has delivered results.

"Actually, art creates balance for your psyche," he says.

It is also a window on the psyche, he says. Drawing is a way for inmates to express emotions, anger and depression, when they first arrive at the center.

He keeps a gallery of paintings, which he analyzes like a detective. The black and white landscapes, which depict scenes from Afghanistan, mean an inmate is still living in the past.

After a few months of counseling, the paintings show more promise. Inmates use color and depict scenes from family life in Riyadh. Al-Yami says this is a sign that the inmate is coming to terms with coming home.

There is a striking number of inmates who draw pictures of castles with high walls. Those send a distinct message, according to Al-Yami.

"I'm not going to give you any information," he says. "I'm behind the wall and you can't get through. If I give you information, I am weak."

He takes the failures hard. Some 20 percent of the inmates here go back to the fight. One spectacular failure went on to become an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.

Now, Al-Yami is preparing for a new wave of inmates: the ISIS generation. He knows they are more extreme than al-Qaida.

"We've got some in prison, waiting for their sentences to be over and they will be here," he says.
Can he reach them, too? He pauses before he answers.

"What the hell am I going to do with ISIS?" he says, a man who knows his toughest challenge is ahead.

 See the original story on NPR and listen to the story on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday by CLICKING HERE.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saudi Arabia's first female detective trained in U.S.

As a former police officer myself, I was quite excited when I saw this news video of Nadeen Alsayat, the first Saudi female trained for police work.  Nadeen recently graduated from Colorado University with a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice paid for by the Saudi government and will become Saudi Arabia's first female detective.  She spent six months interning with the Commerce City Police Department in Colorado.

In addition to Nadeen's accomplishment in the USA, Saudi Arabia will be graduating its first ever class of female police officers as well this year.  Congratulations to Nadeen on achieving her childhood dream of becoming a police officer - and congratulations to the graduating class in KSA for leading the way for other females to break into careers that were previously taboo for Saudi women.

To read more about Nadeen Alsayat's training experience, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

First Wives Club

I used to be able to count on one hand the number of women I personally know whose Saudi husbands married a second wife.  Those days are gone.  Sadly now that number exceeds all the fingers on both hands and all of my toes as well.  As many of you know, Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law which comes from the Quran, the holy book of Islam.  Islam allows men to be married to up to four different women at the same time. 

Muslim scholars and Muslim men seem to be proud of the fact that the Quran is the only holy book that actually states “Marry only one (wife).”  I hear them boast about this all the time!  Why then are so many Muslim men taking on more than wife?  I find this amusing, since polygyny is permitted in Islam but not encouraged.  I just hate it when I hear men here saying that it is their God-given right.  Pfffft!

The original idea for this arrangement is centuries old and was borne out of the necessity of the times.  Men would go off to war, get killed, and there was an abundance of widows and orphans left behind that needed to be protected and provided for.  It was affirmed to be man's “social responsibility,” which begs the question:  Why exactly does a man have to marry a second woman to fulfill his social responsibility?  Especially when the Quran clearly says "Marry only one"???  Aren’t there other socially acceptable ways to provide for needy people other than marriage?  How about charity?  Why do men have to introduce sex into the equation in order to fulfill their social responsibility?

Many Muslim men like to make the claim that there are SO many more women in the world than men, and while that may have been the case centuries ago, statistically speaking, this is no longer a valid argument.  In today’s world, all recent statistics clearly show that men now outnumber women in births (107 to 100) and in the world population (101 to 100).

Yes, there are some countries in the world where women outnumber men, but in the total overall, there are more men.  And Saudi Arabia – where men can marry up to four women - is one of the majority countries that actually has more men than women - so this contention just doesn't hold water any more.

Another reason given for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is to allow a man whose wife cannot bear children to marry another woman who can have babies so he can produce heirs.  The problem with this assertion is that frequently the man is the one with fertility problems - so this excuse for multiple wives should at least have a provision that the man should be checked first to make sure he is not the one with sterility problems - don't cha think?  

I’ve even heard proponents of the multiple wives policy come up with the reasoning that there are so many gay men in the world - so obviously gay men don't count as eligible men in the marriage pool.  Hello?  They always seem to overlook the fact that there are also plenty of lesbians in the world too who don’t want to marry men either.  Moot point.  

And probably the most "honest" excuse I have heard for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is because men just naturally have a stronger sex drive and want to have sex with a variety of women.  So polygyny allows men to do this under the sanctity of marriage to prevent either of the participants from committing a grave sin, according to religion.  However, this argument totally discounts the female’s sex drive and presumes incorrectly that only men have strong sexual urges.  

So in Islam, a woman who becomes a second wife (or third or fourth) is considered by many as doing an "honorable" thing.  But somehow I really don’t think there are too many first wives out there who would actually agree with that statement.   

My thoughts on this are that there are three possible situations where a woman might become a second wife:  
1 – She is a desperate divorcee or widow and wants the security for herself and her children.  
2 – She becomes a second wife unwittingly because the man wasn’t honest with her.   
3 – She actively pursues a married man because she sees that he is wealthy and she doesn’t care that she is destroying a marriage and a family in the process.  

I personally know of women here in Saudi Arabia fitting all of these scenarios.  To be continued…