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Saudi Arabia: Young activist faces social condemnation

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Human Rights, Protest, Women & Gender

Saudi Arabia is a conservative society, and when individuals act in ways that challenge convention, not only might they face harsh criticism, but so might their families. A young activist called Amna Fatani has experienced such condemnation recently, and some Saudi bloggers have offered her their moral support.

amna fatani [1]Ahmed Al-Omran, who blogs at Saudi Jeans, has written a letter to Amna Fatani – and to Saudi society as a whole [2]:

TO: Amna Fatani
CC: Saudi Arabia

Although I have said that censorship does not work anymore, censorship is still a reality of our lives in this part of the world. Unfortunately, censorship by the government is not the only kind of censorship we have to endure and resist here. There is another, more difficult kind to deal with: social censorship.

In our deeply conservative and conformist society, any attempt to differentiate oneself is frowned upon if not outright rejected. You are expected required to think, talk and even look like everyone else. If you dare to say or do anything that does not conform with the conventional wisdom, then you are simply asking for trouble. Not only your ideas will be ridiculed but you will also be personally attacked, and your parents will be blamed for not raising you well.

Now you think that’s bad? It gets ten times worse if you are a woman. Actually, you don’t even need to express a deviant opinion. Being a woman in itself can be enough for some people to denounce you, because to them women are secondary beings that should be kept in dark closets, away from the light of public life. I’m sure you’ve heard all that ‘jewel’ crap many times before.

That’s why when Amna Fatani started a campaign to preserve heritage sites earlier this year, her father received hateful text messages telling him that he has no shame. Fatani appeared again in a local newspaper last week wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh [3] during her participation at the Saudi-British Youth Forum in Jeddah. Again, she was faced with similar reactions. The first comment by a reader was: “let her cover herself up, and worry about her religion first.”

I’m sorry you had to go through this Amna, but if it’s any consolation, know that you are not alone. When AlArabiya.net published my interview with Reuters two years ago, people left many unpleasant comments, calling me a “Westernized spoiled brat” and “retard” among other things. Sure, it didn’t feel good but I have grown a thicker skin. Sometimes it is not just total strangers who try to put you down. More than one of my relatives have told me to “quit this nonsense” I’m doing. You, however, are lucky to have a supportive family who are very proud of you.

So dear Amna, whenever something like that happens to you, remember you are not alone and that we are all in this together. We are young and we are not amused. We are eager and determined. We will not be silenced and we will not be intimidated. We shall speak up and we shall overcome. Open your minds and hearts. Listen to our fresh voices.



Amna’s brother, Raf Fatani, has also posted a letter on his blog, addressed to a journalist from the Arab News newspaper [4]:

I write to you today because of how my sister (as a Saudi female), who cares so much about her country and her religion can be bombarded with such remarks. Earlier this year, she appeared again in a Saudi newspaper regarding a campaign she started regarding caring for our heritage sites. Soon after, my father (who is a university lecturer and a level headed man) started to get hate messages (sms), and threats too. Some telling him, he has no shame and other on a similar note. […] These people discourage young Saudi women like my sister in doing the right thing and speaking up. Luckily, my sister is a very stubborn girl and she will continue doing the right thing, but sometimes she and the people around her are hurt in the process. I am very proud of my sister, and I applaud her!

Amna commented on the Saudi Jeans post, in response to a question [5]:

I’d like to say a fair percentage of families are supportive of their members, whether they be males or females. This is not a message girls can send alone, we have to all join in this motion and work together. As for speaking out not being part of the solution, I would say that it is a BIG part as speaking out has been a taboo in Saudi Arabia for so long, so just that change in attitude in itself is an accomplishment. Also, with regards to speaking the truth, isn’t that how the message of Islam spread throughout the world? It is time to come together and work hand in hand to make our good society a better one.