Wajeha al-Huwaider demands the right to drive.
Wajeha al-Huwaider demands the right to drive.

Keys to the kingdom

Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider will find any way to drive her message home.

In response to my work fighting for women’s rights in my country, some people from outside the kingdom like to point the finger at Saudi men. But I say: when the law is bad the men are bad – you will see their dark side then. The law makes them bad – they can get away with what they want – without even feeling what they are doing to their women is wrong.

I love my country – it’s better to fight to change things from here. People talking from outside are not taken so seriously. But when they talk from inside, it has more effect on people. That’s why I don’t want to leave.

Some people here think my work is about trying to Westernize our society: I’ve been abroad, I have these strange ideas that I want to impose. But it’s not like that. It’s not about Eastern or Western – it’s about human rights. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Actually, my mother and grandmother had more rights and freedoms than we have today. They used to travel without permission. They used whatever was there to move around – camels, donkeys, horses. There weren’t religious beliefs about how to dress. Women used to work in the fields, in the markets. Now these jobs are not available for women or even allowed.

The situation changed gradually. One of the main reasons was economic. In pre-oil boom days there was more freedom for women because the culture was still nomadic. When we started to have more money, after the oil industry was established, and when the country began to urbanize, then we started to segregate. We could afford to have two schools – one for boys and one for girls; two different universities – one for men and one for women.

And of course after the Iranian Revolution there was another reason for people to become more restricted in their behaviour. Saudi Arabia is the homeland of Islam, so the onus is on us to be even more religious than the Iranians. There was also concern about the Shi’a minority here and the possibility of the Islamic Revolution being imported into the kingdom. And the birth of the jihadi movement during the Afghanistan wars gave more power to the religious groups.

We know that the Talibanis or jihadis were trained by the CIA with Saudi money, Gulf money. Jordan and Egypt also sponsored jihadis. The goal was to destroy communism. But the price is very high – for the West and for us here. These guys came back to Saudi Arabia. We had terrorist attacks here too.

The reality now is so different from the time of my grandmother. My paternal granny – I remember her well – was married three times. Her first husband died. She divorced her second husband in the 1930s – it was much easier in those days for a woman to get a divorce. They had a fight once and he hit her and she said: ‘that’s it – I want a divorce.’ And now you see so many abused women who are still living with their husbands and who don’t leave because there’s no way out. It can take years for a woman to be granted a divorce now, even if her husband is abusing her. Society looks down on her if she leaves.

I remember, as a girl in the 1970s, travelling freely with my mother to Iraq, to Kuwait. We didn’t need a man or his permission.

So on Women’s Day in 2008, I decided to ask my sister-in-law to videotape me driving. We were going to the beach. After I posted the video on YouTube, several young women also tried to drive and one was severely injured because some men saw her and tried to drive her off the road. Two years ago, I myself was arrested for walking on the causeway carrying a sign petitioning for women’s rights in the kingdom. They told me I would need a male guardian to sponsor me or they would put me in jail. So my brother came to get me. Another time they confiscated my passport and I was lucky to get it back.

I made a film about child marriage, going across the country interviewing young girls and asking them if they wanted to get married. They all said ‘no’. I posted this on the internet too.

I’m always looking for ways to motivate women to say ‘no’ to all this oppression. I write articles, I protest, I organize. But women are afraid – even to sign a petition. They’re worried that their husbands or fathers will become violent if they do. This is my big struggle – how to get the women involved in their own liberation. Some women I’ve encouraged to challenge the male guardianship law have been stopped by their male relatives or by the police. One woman with two children, who is married to a violent drug addict, tried to leave the country. The police stopped her at the airport – a man has to sign a special form at the police station for his wife to be allowed to go abroad.

In my grandmother’s day it was easier for women to marry who they wanted. Their fathers worked hard in the fields and they were happy to have their daughters start new households – it was one less mouth to feed. Now the society is more urbanized, many women work in offices and many fathers will not let them marry because they want to take their salaries.

The male guardianship system is the biggest obstacle in women’s lives today. If we can get rid of it then things will be much better for women. We will get our lives back. We’ll be able to study, travel, marry and divorce freely, to live alone, own a mobile phone… to live as we please. There’s a growing feminist movement here and many writers and journalists are involved. We hope, inshallah, that things will change.

As told to Hadani Ditmars.
You can see Saudi activist and writer Wajeha al-Huwaider on YouTube http://tinyurl.com/37kkcp and read some of her writing at http://tinyurl.com/2bvm86. In 2004, she received the PEN/NOVIB Free Expression award.

Left: 1920s Iraqi trans singer Masoud al Amaratly. Right: When Ali’s friend sent him this photo of them at a Baghdad disco in the late 1980s, he scratched out Ali’s face to protect him.
Left: 1920s Iraqi trans singer Masoud al Amaratly.
Right: When Ali’s friend sent him this photo of them at a Baghdad disco in the late 1980s, he scratched out Ali’s face to protect him.

To be gay in post-invasion Iraq

Exiled – and still receiving death fatwas – Ali Hili is keeping up the fight for his gay compatriots.

I used to work as a DJ at the 1001 nightclub in Baghdad at the al-Rashid hotel. I started working there when I won a DJ contest in 1987. It was a great scene – lots of dance parties – and a hang-out for the gay community.

When I was 18, I had a partner who was a foreign diplomat. Iraqi intelligence forced me to become a spy and report back to them, threatening that they would kill my family if I didn’t.

This went on for almost 10 years. I wanted to leave. I tried to escape once via Kurdistan but was arrested and handed over to Iraqi police. I used my connections to escape a jail sentence. The police asked me, why do you want to leave? I said life was hard under sanctions and I couldn’t make a living. So they sent me to Dubai to work for them. There I met my current partner – a Texan. I explained the situation to him and he understood. I started to get harassed by the mukhabarat [secret police] – they wanted information from me. We tried to escape to Dubai via the US embassy and were able to get to Europe. Eventually after many difficulties – constant threats from Iraqi secret police, several failed attempts and many traumatic incidents (including being nearly deported back to Iraq) – I made it to England in 2002. My partner had a job there. For the last seven years I’ve been fighting for the right to stay and seeking political asylum. I’ve been refused a couple of times already. I was granted permission to stay until 2008 but that’s expired. I’ve received a death fatwa against me from the Ayatollah Sistani in response to my activist work for gays in Iraq. The group that kidnapped British hostages, Assab Alsar Al-Haq (The League of the Righteous), has also threatened me. Now I’m under police protection, moving from house to house. But even the police said to me: ‘You have created this situation. You scream and shout against fundamentalists and they will threaten you. What do you expect?’

The irony is that the situation for gays has been caused by the Anglo-American invasion. The fatwas were issued by people empowered by the invasion. Now Britain should take responsibility for protecting their victims. Some people in Iraq are targeted because they are doctors, or Sunnis or Shi’as or women or Christians. But no-one is talking about the killing of gays by the fundamentalist militias. One of my best friends – a transsexual – was murdered by a militia from the Ministry of the Interior. They beat her and then set her on fire.

I never studied human rights – never thought I’d be leading an organization that advocates for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] people. But this is something I’m compelled to do because of the lovers, friends, neighbours and relatives I’ve lost.

Some US-based human rights groups have been contacting gays in Iraq and trying to get them out. But this only endangers them. It’s a death sentence for people to come out and campaign. Someone I spoke to recently was arrested, detained and severely beaten just for belonging to our organization.

But leaving Iraq is not the solution. We can’t just evacuate everyone. That will give fundamentalists a reason to think they have won. There’s a long and proud gay history in Iraq. Just look at the poetry – like the Rumi poems where he always spoke of his lover, Shams. Or Abu Nawas who celebrated his love for young men in verse. There are examples of Caliphs who had male partners, like Muhammed al Amin. In modern history we had singers, actors, trans people, like female-to-male Masoud al Amaratly, a singer popular in the 1920s. Under King Faisal we had a secular, open society. We were one of the first Arab countries to have women ambassadors and a liberal civil code.

Now this new wave of Islam – that came out of the dens of evil – has been imposed on us. Wahhabist Islam from Saudi Arabia, financed by the US and fundamentalist Shi’a groups imported from Iran; religious parties established and funded by Iran that were banned under the old regime. Ironically, for a once-secular society, Iraq is now a more dangerous place to be gay than Iran.

The agenda is to divide Iraqi society and empower fundamentalists on all sides. There are good, moderate Islamic groups like the Islamic Party of Iraq who have been calling for a moderate secular Islam and the separation of religion from politics. Instead, their leaders have been assassinated. There’s a campaign against moderates by those close to the prime minister.

The Iraqi Government is corrupt and dangerous when it comes to personal freedom: anyone who opposes their agenda is ‘disappeared’. Our struggle as an LGBT people is the struggle of Iraqis in general. Some of the Western gay rights groups are in denial about the connection between the invasion and the empowerment of fundamentalists – and the terrible situation for gays today. But the invasion was a catastrophe that destroyed Iraq culturally, morally – in all aspects.

We need more people to speak out about this. We need support for our organization, for the people inside; we need help, we need funds. Perhaps the world has become indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis – it’s a big guilt for the world – everyone wants the nightmare to disappear. But it won’t go away.

As told to Hadani Ditmars.
Ali Hili’s group Iraqi LGBT has established several safe houses in Iraq with the assistance of the Dutch organization, HIVOS. He lives in London under police protection. For more information or to make a donation see:

Roya Hakakian (circled) and her school chums in early 80s’ Tehran.
Roya Hakakian (circled) and her school chums in early 80s’ Tehran.

Queen Esther and the bad mullah

Roya Hakakian on being both Jewish and Iranian

What is most astonishing about the Iran of 2009 is how much, despite 30 years and the doubling of the population, it remains the Iran I knew as a teenager. I’d not find my way around Tehran, where the streets have been renamed and new roads have sliced into the heart of the city. But what continues to beat, despite the assault of time and urban expansion, is the very restless soul I had to leave behind five years after the Revolution in 1984.

Today Iranians are taking to the streets again. It is a new generation of fists being thrown into the air, a new set of throats shouting slogans. But the blood is the same red blood, and the plight is the same plight. And as it did for a fleeting moment in 1979, the spirit of egalitarianism has transcended the realm of rhetoric. This is a movement in which men give in readily to the rule of the women rebels who have been its primary organizers. It is an inclusive movement which has drawn Iranians of all ethnicities and religions. A movement that has inspired my 82-year-old father to serenade it in poetry.

Born and raised in the largely Muslim town of Khonsar, my father was admitted to the university against all odds, got a master’s degree, joined the military as a second lieutenant, went back to his village dressed in the first Western-style suit the locals had ever seen, then moved to Tehran to become a leading educator.

His childhood stories remain the most memorable features of our family gatherings. Once a bad mullah came to Khonsar, intent on making trouble for the Jews; two mischievous Jews drove him out by secretly spraying his prayer mat with liquor. Then there was the time a local fish peddler realized that my father had touched a fish, thereby ‘dirtying’ the whole load. The peddler threw the rest away, providing a feast of free fish to the Jews of the town.

And the best was this: When it rained for eight consecutive days, my grandmother stormed into the office of the school superintendent to protest the rule that Jewish students had to be kept home on rainy days. Moved by my grandmother’s plea, the superintendent escorted my father to his classroom, had him sip from a glass of water, then took the glass and gulped down the rest. He turned to the class and said: ‘If this water is good enough for me, it is good enough for all of you. From now on, Hakakian will come to class in all kinds of weather.’

More than any religious instruction, these stories shaped my understanding of what it meant to be an Iranian Jew. In Persia, the land of Queen Esther, whose virtue overcame evil, one could, by wit or by wisdom, overcome every bigot.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about the Holocaust may terrify people who don’t know Iran. But those who do, find it, above all, tragic. By resuscitating symbols like the swastika and other Nazi-era relics, he is contaminating the Iranian social realm, where such concepts have scarcely existed. No doubt Jews have been mistreated in Iran throughout their long history, but to a degree incomparable to that suffered by Russian and European Jews.

Throughout its 2,000-year presence in Persia, the Jewish community has helped shape the Iranian identity. Some major Persian literary texts survived the Arab invasion of the seventh century because they had been transliterated into Hebrew. Traditional Persian music owes its continuity to the Jewish artists who kept it alive when Muslims were forbidden to practice it. Yet Iranian Jews have had to hide their identity and restrain its expression.

Of all the pain that Muslim Iranians have inflicted upon the Jews, the most persistent is obscurity. We have always been admired for being ‘completely Iranian’ – the euphemism for being invisible, indistinguishable from Muslims. We speak Persian. We celebrate the Iranian New Year with as much verve as the next Iranian. Our kitchens smell of Persian cuisine. At our Jewish festivities, we dance to Persian music. In the United States, we have often angered our American counterparts for not wishing to pray in their temples, because we insist on conducting our services in Persian.

Sometimes they are shocked when I say that my generation was on the streets chanting ‘Death to the Shah!’ But 1979 was a blissful, egalitarian moment when young people shed everything that defined them as anything but Iranian.

Four years later, the regime did its best to instate policies and practices hostile to religious minorities. Water fountains and toilets at my high school were segregated, some marked with signs that read ‘For Muslims Only’. But by and large, Iranians were not receptive to such bigotry. We criss-crossed among the stalls until the signs became meaningless.

The post-revolutionary regime has had the misfortune of ruling a people reluctant to embrace its radical message. That is why Iran remains home to the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East – second only to Israel.

My father barely ventures out of his Queens, New York, apartment these days. When my siblings and I scold him for not getting out enough, he says that there is nothing here he wishes to see. ‘Tell me we’re going to Khonsar,’ he says, ‘and I’ll see you at the door.’

Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the memoir Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.