In a world that has progressed immensely in the societal domain, where society strives to shrug off the remaining bits of misogyny and male chauvinism, it is dispiriting to observe the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Women require the permission of their guardian men, mahram, to perform the simplest of tasks, like opening a bank account. At the same time, ironically, there is a stronger presence of women on university campuses than that of men. However, in a kingdom that is under the choking grips of staunch senior clerics, there is little space for the progress of women.
Majd Abdulghani, a twenty year old girl living in Saudi Arabia, provides us with very insightful episodes into her life. As she records on her microphone for a Podcast by Radio Diaries, the deep sense of passion and hope in her voice is quite palpable. Majd is different from the other girls. There is an innate sense of questioning the norms that her mother and the rest of her family seem to have easily accepted.
Being a country that has no minimum age restrictions for the marriage of women, Majd started receiving proposals from men since she turned 19. As a bachelor’s student in King Saud University with a brimming with a desire to study and make a difference to the world, though, Majd confessed she had no intentions of marrying anyone so soon.
Majd shares a pretty casual relationship with her four brothers and her parents. Her work in the university genetics lab involves interactions with men, which, according to her, is a little strange, but not unnerving. There are certain rules she has to follow, though, like completely avoid shaking hands, or any other form of body contact. Her family has accepted this as her field of work, so they don’t have a problem.
Karate at the female gym in Saudi Arabia is her passion. She refers to it as The Fight Club. Taking Karate classes is very unusual for girls in the Arabic country, something her father had picked on. He had already expressed he wished her to discontinue with Karate, since it makes her less feminine. But her parents fail to understand that Karate is more than just physical training for her – its an art, its something she can lose herself in, and not think about anything else at that time. They want her to start getting accustomed to the kitchen, so she could fulfill her responsibilities as a wife and keep her husband happy in the future. That is how the society looks at women and marriage in Saudi Arabia – performing wifely duties and taking care of home – something that seems illogical to Majd.
It is mandatory for women to wear an abaya, a long black over-garment, and a niqab, that is worn over the face so that they don’t “show off their beauty”. Her brother believes there should be an opening for only one eye in the niqab, so that a maximum area is covered. While it is again unfair and misogynistic, Majd looks at this custom with a unique set of eyes. She says the prospect of walking down the streets fully covered from head to toe is quite exhilarating. In the university, which houses separate campuses for men and women, Majd can roam freely without the abaya, and wear make up, and truly be herself, which is a more liberating experience.
A year later, studying at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), Majd received another proposal from a boy, who is well-mannered and polite, according to her parents. Agreeing to meet with him and bearing just a one percent chance of saying yes, she traveled back to her hometown from her dorms in the University.
On the day of the meet, Majd saw “the guy” asking her hand for marriage, and found him pretty handsome. And like all couples that always start with their first awkward and nervous conversations, Majd and the man shared greetings and introduced themselves. Majd was content with his answers. Anmar wanted to come up with an invention to change the way energy is used in Saudi Arabia, and he didn’t seem to mind that her interests were Karate and genetics. But the one statement that he said stuck with her: “We’ll push each other to the top.”
Since her marriage with Anmar, Majd has been accepted into a masters program in genetics, and is well on the way to achieve her dreams. Even the shackles of society hasn’t held her back in being fulfilling everything that she believes in, and this helps her stand out as a paradigm for other women in Saudi Arabia.
-By Saurabh Bodas
Saurabh is pursuing engineering and is an intern at NewsGram. Twitter handle: saurabhbodas96
The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.
But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.
The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.
Hope and music
Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.
The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.
Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.
Advances for women
Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.
“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.
But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.
“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.
Ethnic groups help each other
Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.
“It’s hope for the future,” he said.
Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.
“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.
Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.
“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.
The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.
The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)