Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Riaz Patel, detailing a recent trip to Saudi Arabia just 14 days after visiting Alaska in search of the truth.
On the final afternoon of my visit to Saudi Arabia, I was standing on the edge of a red-stone cliff, squinting at the rippling, orange sun as it dipped past the vastness of the desert. I took a deep breath as the strangest thought came to mind:
“This place totally reminds me of Ketchikan, Alaska.”
The weirder part is that it really did (despite a sixty-degree temperature difference). So, please allow me to explain:
I’d been invited to Saudi to see a variety of programs recently launched on behalf of women’s rights & equality. The work lined up with so many of my own transformative shows and projects, so I happily accepted. But in the weeks leading up to the trip, I had many conversations with family and friends who were deeply concerned for my safety. That as a Muslim who was Google-ably gay, I was endangering myself - or even walking into a trap. That as a new parent, I was being reckless. I did not agree but when people say the same thing to you time and time again, it chips away at your conviction.
As a Muslim, I already had a vague personal frustration with Saudi Arabia. The reputation of their hardline religious zealots had been a part of giving Islam a bad name, worldwide. In most arguments about how backwards the Islamic world is, the “Women-Can’t-Show-Their Faces-Or-Drive-in-Saudi” argument is always a crowd-favorite. And impossible to refute.
But as I boarded my thirteen-hour flight, I made a very specific choice: I was going to make a conscious effort to see their world through THEIR eyes, not mine. What do they want and need, rather than what I thought they wanted and needed? Upon landing, I was determined to see as honest and accurate a version of Saudi Arabia as I could find. So, I spent the next three days keenly scanning places, faces, and even conversations for truth and authenticity.
I spoke with women (I’d say approximately half the women are unveiled around Riyadh) about how much more relaxed life has become since the religious police no longer have the authority to make arrests. I even chatted with one about her experiences going to “house parties” and dating on Tinder (seriously). I sipped tea with four old men in the bazaar and discussed their very real fears of Isis, many that mirror our own here in America. I had dinner with a brilliant psychologist who excitedly discussed the growing acceptance of the therapeutic process among her Muslim patients. And whenever the topic of children came up (which it did often) being out of “in-the-closet” practice, I would reference my husband and register shock that it didn’t impact the cooing over baby photos in the slightest. Time after time, I saw and experienced things that were both impressive and unexpected.
But the thing that impressed me the most in Saudi Arabia – more striking than even the spectrum of colors found in a desert sunset – I discovered next to the cereal section of a large grocery store chain in Riyadh. It was there that I found a version of feminism that was so dedicated and focused that is dazzled me with its surging hope and progress.
In the shadow of a towering stack of cornflake boxes, I spoke with a woman, fully-veiled, about her new - and very first - job. Gushing excitedly through bright eyes, I learned how only a few months’ prior her family had shown resistance when she expressed she wanted to attend a job-training & life-skills workshop. But she went anyway. I learned how when she was hired as a cashier, she used to pass notes to her manager because she was too nervous to ask questions with her own voice out loud. But still she showed up every day. I learned how her long-term goal is a PhD so she can lecture at the University and teach women. And she’s already enrolled in classes.
Now if you look at the photo of us chatting away, the veil is shocking. It’s not something I believed in or am comfortable with. But I have to remember that’s just something she wears. It’s not who she is. Please focus on the woman and not what she is wearing. You’re
looking at a “snapshot” of a human being’s existence and seeing only one aspect. And it’s certainly not enough information to judge her
life and choices.
Is her enthusiastic, giggly version of Feminism to be discounted because of her attire? Is her forward momentum to be overlooked
because her “starting point” feels so far behind what we think is acceptable? Should her achievements get any less support or
admiration because she’s Saudi and her individuality is lost on our eyes in a sea of black cloth?
Now look at the photo a different way. How rare it is to meet someone who has not only transformed their entire life, but also the future potential of multiple generations in less than one year? That is what you are looking at. She has created a new life. All she needed was the legal right, and a little help, to begin. What I was amazed by was this woman’s commitment to do the hard and exhausting work that
accompanies change. Each and every day. That ensures the changes are real and lasting - not just symbolic.
I thought a lot about the difference between participating in the work a country needs to move forward versus “symbolic activism.” And on my flight home I thought about the despondence here at home, particularly among women, still reeling from the blow of the Clinton loss a few weeks prior. It’s almost like the news cycles have created a strange, soul-crushing addition to “misery porn” as so many people
confuse “participation” in their world with complaining or posting/re-posting their anger. But that habit actually works counter to the goal of real progress because it removes the most powerful motivation: Hope.
If we are scared or worried about what the next four years will bring, these Saudi women have taught me it’s up to us to make sure it’ll be ok. We’re spending most of our time and energy panicking over what can happen and not what we will make sure does happen. When did we become so powerless? Let me tell you I just met a woman who used to be powerless only until recently, and she wasn't wasting any additional energy complaining about it. Because she has the drive of a Hope that comes from knowing you are already moving past where you are now and allowing change – at whatever momentum – to inspire rather than dishearten. Progress takes time and work and by not acknowledging or even noticing impressive change in places like Saudi Arabia, we turn our back on points of personal inspiration and the hope we so desperately need now.
If we seek confirmation when we think the worst about people, we will always find it. But the same is true when we notice and acknowledge their progress – we see the best and the brightest from people. Which I did.
Now back to the cliff in the desert at sunset. As I sipped my rose tea with a small group of locals, I thought about the difference between what I expected to see in Saudi and what I did see. How did I not know about ANY of their steps forward as a nation? Not one? Not even the curtailing of the all-menacing religious police? And I am the type of progressive Muslim who specifically searches for stories
of any type of hope coming out of the Islamic world, especially Saudi.
The answer that was relayed to me time and time again – not with anger, but more with resignation –
No one wants to tell that story.
Now where did I just hear those EXACT sentiments before? A group of people saying that they’re tired that no one sees them for who they really are. That all stories about them focus on the worst. That all the stories are the same.
In Alaska. Just fourteen days prior. A trip I had made the week before the US election to get to know more about who the “They” were that were supporting Trump. A “They” completely outside of my own Echo Chamber. It was during that experience that I discovered, in conversation after conversation, how rural Trump supporters shared the exact same sentiments when discussing their frustration with the
way Others (Liberals & mainstream media) saw them (deplorable), thought of them (racists), and most importantly, FELT about them (contempt).
And so what I discovered in Alaska as I tasted my first sip of salmon-infused vodka was confirmed when I tried rose tea for the first time in Saudi Arabia: the ongoing and disturbing trend to vilify those with whom we don’t agree. In totality. It’s no longer ok to “agree to disagree.” Now we “disagree without even trying to agree” as both the rural Alaskans and Saudis had just pointed out.
I smiled when I thought of hosting the world’s first Half-Alaskan/Half-Saudi dinner party where all the different people I had recently met would sit around the table – Nicole & Seema, Jim & Jamal, Heidi & Reem, etc. – and we’d all laugh about how bizarre it was I would meet two completely different groups of people within two weeks, from two completely opposite sides of the planet, and they would both feel and want the exact same thing at the exact same point in history: To no longer be judged, invalidated, and dismissed. How wonderful would that type of comradery and support feel around the table, especially coming from such unlikely sources?
Actually, I know exactly how it would feel. I received such a gracious invitation from Glenn Beck a few months back. Who would think the two of us would sit down and not only like each other so much, but realize we share common ground on just about everything. We are in unprecedented times, neighbors. Let’s look at things a little differently.
When did regions of the world become sterile, faceless labels and not the collection of individuals with their individual hopes, worries, and dreams? Isn’t that what they really are? There is no one Trump voter. There is no one Saudi Woman. There is no one Conservative. There is no one Muslim. In the exact same way that none of us should be vilified for our most personal beliefs and doing what we feel
is best for our families, I don’t think any of us can vilify the veiled, female grocery cashier – or millions like her – who are doing the work necessary to move themselves and their nations to a place they believe is better.
They are leaping forward. We need to dig in together to try and keep from slipping backwards.
We just have to choose to be Hopeful. And get to Work.