Sand Gets in My Eyes (SGIME) has always been a favorite read of mine since I moved to Saudi Arabia and discovered blogging. She is an American who has lived in Saudi Arabia for eight years and has also lived elsewhere in the Middle East, Australia, and other places. With a background in psychology, her posts are always thoughtful and she tackles highly controversial issues with persuasive aplomb. In October of this year, the SGIME blog was blocked in Saudi Arabia and is still blocked. This means that people within the country cannot access her blog but it is still accessible outside Saudi Arabia. She recently came to the decision to "lay down her pen" after nearly seven years of writing SGIME. Her blog will continue to be available online to the rest of the world, however she plans to discontinue adding new material.
SGIME was kind enough to answer some questions I posed to her...
Susie – What kept you inspired all those years and in what ways was blogging rewarding for you?
SGIME - Susie, I guess it comes down to this – there are (and of course will continue to be) a lot of important issues in Saudi that need to be talked about openly, but for whatever reason, they just aren’t. Maybe there’s too much intentional misinformation out there, maybe they’re taboo, maybe they make people uncomfortable, maybe they’re complicated and complex, maybe they’re one piece of a bigger puzzle, maybe they’re just so confusing and confused that no one wants to take the time to understand them. Maybe people are lazy and unmotivated. Maybe it’s just easier not to talk about them. SGIME was my way of talking about those things, and encouraging others to talk about them, too. I guess you could say I planted seeds and waited for them to take root. When that happened, I got all the inspiration and reward I needed.
Susie - Your blog was blocked by the Saudi government in October and is still blocked. Do you have any personal ideas about why it was blocked?
SGIME - Gosh, I have a lot of ideas, and have gotten some new ones from others who probably know more than I do about such things! Obviously I hit a nerve with someone who had enough wasta to get SGIME blocked. What nerve that was…not sure. I'd recently been reaching out to different people, both inside and outside of the Kingdom for insight into various topics I was covering, and my guess is that was seen as potentially threatening to someone since for awhile the email associated with the blog was also blocked. SGIME had also recently received some heavy press in the States which created a significant spike in readership, and that might have had something to do with it too. One theory I’ve heard a lot is that I was “too relentless” when it came to women’s issues. Not exactly sure what that means or if it is even possible!
The thing is, I always knew there was a fair probability that SGIME would be blocked at some point simply because of the topics I covered and the way I covered them – unvarnished and passionately. I have no regrets.
Susie - Did the blog blockage play a major role in your decision to stop blogging?
SGIME - Yes, but not in the way most folks would assume! SGIME readership actually went up after the blog was blocked, in large part, I think, because so many people wanted to show their support. A lot of new readers were showing up and those who had been silent, were sending emails and messages of encouragement, which was awful nice!
Getting blocked was an affirmation of sorts that SGIME was seen as an agent of change, which was a good thing, but also meant as the author of the blog, I was no longer “under the radar”, something I’d tried hard to maintain and was (and is) important to me.
But the truth is, getting blocked was one in a growing number of messages that it was time to put SGIME aside.
Jesus Christ is my foundation, and over the past several months, He’d been putting it on my heart that I was spending more time thinking about and learning Islam than about Him and what He had to say about matters. It was negatively impacting everything about me – including my faith, my joy and the sense of peace I depend on. Once I listened to – and accepted – that message, the decision to stop blogging was pretty easy!
Susie - You often wrote about many of the women's social issues in Saudi Arabia which are perceived as problematic by the West. Do you think that mere bloggers can make a difference or have an impact?
SGIME - I think that in Saudi Arabia, the Internet is just about the ONLY thing that can – and does – impact change! The current "rules" don't just separate people, they separate and isolate thoughts and ideas and information. In many ways, the Internet - especially social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter – makes the "rules" impotent, it breaks through the walls of isolation and puts all those decisions about interaction and relationships and natural curiosity back on the individual. The sad thing is that a lot of Saudis don’t remember a time when those decisions were in their hands, and they don’t have any idea how to make them anymore. There’s a steep learning curve ahead for individuals and the Kingdom, and I’ve no doubt social media will be part of the solution.
But, to the first part of your question, Susie, human dignity shouldn’t be perceived as being the right of some and not others, nor should the denial of human rights be seen as problematic by just one group of people. When one person is denied human dignity, we must all see it as a problem worth tackling, otherwise it is always “someone else’s problem”.
Susie - How much did you find yourself self-editing your posts on controversial issues?
SGIME - I’m a freak when it comes to word choice and tone no matter what I’m writing, and of course that carried over to SGIME. Over the years, I wrote posts about every topic imaginable, no matter how controversial or inflammatory, sensational or biased, and then self-edited as to which posts got published. Several really great posts never saw the light of day!
Susie - Have you ever had any personal interaction with the religious police here in KSA? How do you view their role here?
SGIME - Sure, on several occasions! Hasn’t every woman in KSA- regardless of nationality or religion? I mean seriously, if you wear an abaya, they harass you to cover your head. If you cover your head, they harass you to cover your face. Cover your face and they harass you to cover your eyes! And if you cover everything, they harass you for being in public! To paraphrase Mick Jager, “they can’t get no satisfaction”! For that reason, as well as many, many others – including on religious grounds - I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve worn an abaya over the last seven years.
As far as role…I see the religious police as bullying stand-ins for personal responsibility and accountability, as intimidating dispensers of moral compass-by-proxy, if you will. They make the decisions so others don’t have to. Personally, I prefer to make my own, thank you!
I was reading thru the Wikileaks (source: http://wikileaks.de/cable/2009/05/09RIYADH651.html) the other day and came across the following, which I found fascinating, telling and absolutely spot-on when it comes to the issue of religious police:
“ In a meeting with Jeddah CG and XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX was blunt when asked about SAG efforts in countering extremist thinking. ‘King Abdallah was here,’ he said, pointing around his well-appointed office XXXXXXXXXXXX in Jeddah. ‘He told us that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated’ on the subject. King Abdallah, he said, used a metaphor of a donkey to explain how the religious police use the wrong approach. ‘They take a stick and hit you with it, saying ‘Come donkey, it’s time to pray.’ How does that help people behave like good Muslims?’ XXXXXXXXXXXX quoted the king as saying.”
Susie - Child brides, women driving, the guardianship system - why are topics like these so prevalent in your writings?
SGIME - Frankly because they raise my ire! They symbolize what I see as the irrefutable wrong-mindedness of Saudi society and how that society views women: Females are property, and thus can be bought, sold, traded and mistreated with total disregard for their feelings, wishes, dreams or futures. Females are incompetent, incapable, incomplete and irresponsible (although of course, at the same time they are seen as wholly responsible for male morality and behavior). Females cannot be trusted to make reasonable, independent decisions on anything other than accessories and maybe groceries. Females are unwelcome children who should be neither seen nor heard, but instead be isolated and locked away physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually, all the while thankful for and content with whatever crumbs or hand-me-downs they might get.
Saudi will continue to struggle unless and until these views change.
Susie - When you have driven in the West, did you ever feel like you were a “portent of evil” behind the wheel? (NOTE: This term was used in 1990 by the Saudi government and religious conservatives to describe women who drove automobiles within the Kingdom in a rebellious and organized act of civil disobedience. The united women’s action prompted the drafting of an actual law prohibiting women from driving. Prior to that, there was technically no written law on the books although women were still not permitted to drive.)
SGIME – LOL. The very idea that the absence of a penis makes someone a “portent of evil” (behind the wheel or anywhere else) is absurd and offensive and ignorant and insulting. If I didn’t know people alive today who think that way, I’d say it was laughable. But we all know better.
Susie - Are you hopeful that women in Saudi Arabia will make gains in obtaining their basic human rights?
SGIME - Hope springs eternal! lol Seriously tho, ask a lot of Saudi women and they’ll tell you they already have their basic human rights – which frankly, is what I see as the root cause of the many human rights violations that go on here. (And, contrary to what people say in public, there are a lot of them!)
When more Saudi women believe they deserve their God-given rights than believe they must settle for what men are willing to give them, the women of Saudi Arabia will demand change. That tipping point hasn’t been reached yet, and I’m not convinced it will ever be reached. Too many people have too much invested in maintaining the status quo.
Susie - What will you be doing with all your free time now that you are no longer blogging?
SGIME - I can’t believe how much free time I have! I always have a few writing projects in the hopper, and I’ve been working on a reasonable schedule to finish them up. I’m also putting together a documentary, and brushing up on some of the skills that requires. And, as I mentioned before, I’m going to be spending more time thinking about God and less time thinking about Islam. I’m looking forward to whatever next thing God has planned for me here, and just soaking in all the goodness and light that comes from focusing on the right things.
"We should not permit tolerance to degenerate into indifference." - Margaret Chase Smith